How to Have a Tough Conversation with a Staff Member

Leadership often requires that we navigate tough conversations with staff and employees. It’s easy to neglect such vital conversations for several reasons: fear, they’ve gone sour in the past, we don’t know how, etc.  But to lead well, we must not avoid those talks. I’ve learned that a simple process called active listening can help make those interactions go much better. Here’s how it works.

Two businessmen having an argument

First, appropriately set up your conversation. Assume, for example, that an employee named John is consistently late to work and you need to talk to him about that. To give him some sense of control (when we feel like we have control we can dampen the brain’s fear response), don’t spring the conversation on him. Ask John in a non-emotional moment that you’d like to talk about office hours at his convenience. Ask him to let you know a time that might work.

The conversation might go like this.

John, I’d like to chat with you for about 15 minutes about our office hours. Would you mind looking at your calendar and suggesting a couple of times that might work with your schedule? After I hear from you, I’ll check my schedule and then we’ll set a time. Thanks.

So assume that you both agree on a time. Before you meet, carefully think through what you want to say using this simple acronym, DESC, that I learned from my friend Sharon Swing. This easy-to-remember tool can help guide your conversation, keep it positive, and secure commitment for the desired change. Here’s what DESC stands for.

  • D: Describe the negative behavior.
  • E: Express the emotions you feel when you see the negative behavior.
  • S: State the positive behavior you desire.
  • C: Explain the consequences that will result with the new positive behavior you desire.

Here’s what a conversation might look like using the DESC model. I’ve shortened the conversation for brevity’s sake.

D

John, I’m noticing that you are often late to work. As you know we want to be here at nine so we can get in a full day of productive work.

E

When you are consistently late for work I feel frustrated because it does not provide a good example for the rest of the team. Sometimes I also feel angry at you because we’ve talked about this before. I don’t want to start my day feeling frustrated or angry at you.

S

Going forward, I want you to be at work at nine.

C

When you start arriving at work on time, it will help keep up team morale and help me start out with a positive disposition toward you for the day.

After you share your thoughts above, ask for a commitment from John to be on time and then set a mutually agreed upon follow up date to gauge progress.

This simple tool works not only in the workplace, but at home as well.

How have you handled those difficult conversations?

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Leader, have you Normalized God?

When you hear someone say, “God,” it evokes many images and thoughts. Yet for a Christian leader, without a clear biblical understanding of God, leadership lacks power. Recently I read the newly released book, Yawning at Tigers: You Can’t Tame God, So Stop Trying (Thomas Nelson) by Drew Dyck, managing editor of Leadership Journal. It is a beautiful written, thought provoking book about how God beckons us to see Him afresh. I highly recommend it for anyone, especially leaders. I asked Drew to write a guest post about the book and I’ve included it here.

Beautiful sunshine

There are no experts on God

Not me. Not you. Not your pastor or the theology professor with two PhDs.

Merriam-Webster defines an expert as “one with the special skill or knowledge representing mastery of a particular subject.”

Have you ever met someone who possesses “mastery” on the topic of God?

Me neither.

While we know enough about God to receive salvation and enter into a relationship with him, our knowledge of him is still far from complete. Our intelligence is too small, our language too limited. When it comes to God, we’re all beginners. Yet this very realization—that we cannot fully understand God—is crucial to even beginning to understand him.

The early church father Gregory of Nyssa compared contemplating God’s nature to standing at the edge of a sheer cliff with no foothold. He wrote:

 The soul . . . becomes dizzy and perplexed and returns once again to what is natural to it, content now to merely know this about the Transcendent, that it is completely different from the nature of the things which the soul knows.

We might assume knowing God simply includes getting all our facts about him straight. But maybe the first step is vertigo, a holy disorientation. Perhaps only once we’ve been shocked out of our normal way of processing reality—categorizing it, mastering it—can we hope to gain even a glimpse of God’s awesome power and beauty. Even C. S. Lewis, arguably the most brilliant Christian of the last century, speculated that “half our great theological and metaphysical problems” would be too confused to even have answers. “How many hours are in a mile? Is yellow square or round? Probably half the questions we ask . . . are like that.”

Our attempts to describe God stretch the limits of human language. The best descriptions seem to veer toward the superlative and abstract. Theologians describe God as the ground of all being, the uncaused first cause, the overwhelming mystery.

How could we possibly hope to comprehend such a Being? Our brains are too puny, our resources too limited. The moment we think we have God figured out is the instant of our greatest confusion.

As the Dominican priest Victor White wrote:

So soon as we become satisfied with any picture of God, we are in danger of idolatry: of mistaking the comprehensible image for the reality, of losing the numinous, the mystery, the transcendent majesty of God. So soon as, consciously or unconsciously, we suppose we have grasped God, he must elude us, for he is always beyond the furthermost advance we make in knowledge about him.

Don’t get me wrong. We can feel God’s presence and receive his love. We can know him, but that’s only possible because, in a stunning display of mercy, he chose to reveal himself to us in ways we could understand. However, possessing this modicum of knowledge should never be confused with comprehensive understanding. Ultimately, when it comes to God, we’re like ants crawling across an iPad: in touch with something we only faintly understand.

Literary critic Jonathan Culler defined poetry as “the making strange of language.” What does he means by “making strange”? Simply that, in poems, words draw attention to themselves. With other kinds of reading (an instruction manual, for instance) words serve merely to convey information. But in poetry words become the stars. They don’t disappear behind their meaning. Instead, through literary devices such as meter, rhyme, repetition, and structure, poetry “foregrounds language itself: makes it strange, thrusts it at you—Look! I’m language!”

The Bible does the same thing for God. It thrusts God at you, saying, “Look! This is God!” It makes God strange. Not strange in a bad way but in the most basic sense of the word—unfamiliar, other, outside the range of our knowing.

Unfortunately, in our efforts to make the Bible interesting and relevant, we try to normalize God. We become experts at taking something lofty, so unfathomable and incomprehensible, and dragging it down to the lowest shelf. We fail to account for the fact that God is neither completely knowable nor remotely manageable.

This habit is not confined to the pews. Those of us who lead can be the worst. Preaching professor John Koessler writes of the tendency for preachers to “normalize the outrageous in Scripture.” There’s a temptation to flatten out the divine portrayals in the Bible to make God more palatable to our audience. We’re in desperate need of leaders who will resist this temptation and teach the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27), holiness included.

Here’s the beautiful irony: making God strange actually enables us to know him more. Once we have marveled at his magnitude and mystery we are able to achieve the deep intimacy that grows out of a true appreciation for who God is. Instead of treating him as an equal, we approach him with reverent awe. Only when we’ve been wonderstruck by his majesty can we be overwhelmed by his love.

This post was excerpted from Yawning at Tigers: You Can’t Tame God, So Stop Trying (Thomas Nelson). For more information visit yawningattigers.com

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Our Church’s Giving Increased 33%…Here’s Why

I recently became lead pastor at a great church in London, Ontario, West Park Church. It has a rich tradition, great people, is located in a fast growing area, and has a killer facility. When I arrived we faced a significant budget deficit. We erased our deficit with a special offering around Christmas. However, during the first three months of this year we fell behind again. We then intentionally addressed our declining finances by taking several intentional steps. As a result, the last six weeks our average weekly giving has increased over 33%. Here’s what we did that I believed is positively impacting our giving.

generosity road sign illustration design
  1. I taught a 4-part series on generosity using the concepts in The Treasure Principle written by Randy Alcorn.
  2. We sold the book and encouraged the entire church to read it.
  3. Several of our small groups studied the series. It’s a great 4-week series in DVD format.
  4. We held what we called a “Tithe Demonstration Day” where we encouraged everyone in the church to tithe off one week’s salary. Here’s the bulletin insert we used: Tithe Day Insert 2014.
  5. I moved the offering to the end of the service. I also added a short comment about giving at that time and I often will put a face on giving by showing a picture of some ministry and tying the church’s giving to that tangible ministry. This move also made the offering time less of an afterthought.
  6. We added a challenge after the tithe demo day called the “90 Day Challenge” where I challenged everyone to take another step toward giving during the next 90 days. I even promised that if someone took the next step in that challenge and after 90 days felt it wasn’t worth it, I’d take them out to a steak dinner. Here’s the insert we used: 90 Day Giving Challenge.

I realize that six weeks doesn’t guarantee a permanent trend, but I sense that God is doing a work in our church in the area of generosity.

What has helped your church become more generous?

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Smart Leaders stay close to their Critics

MEN WANTED FOR HAZARDOUS JOURNEY. SMALL WAGES, BITTER COLD, LONG MONTHS OF COMPLETE DARKNESS, CONSTANT DANGER, SAFE RETURN DOUBTFUL. HONOUR AND RECOGNITION IN CASE OF SUCCESS. Little did those accepted for this job out of the thousands who applied realize how true those words would eventually become.

criticism stick figure

Ernest Shackleton, a well-known explorer in the early 1900s, placed this ad in 1915 to recruit a team for his third attempt to cross the continent of Antarctica. In August of that year, he set sail with his recruits in the ship Endurance, named after his family motto: “By endurance, we conquer.” Three months later they arrived at South Georgia Island in the southern Atlantic to begin their thousand-mile trek to the Antarctic Peninsula, a trip expected to take 120 days.

More than a year earlier, Vilhjalmur Stefansson had led a different expedition to explore the Arctic in their ship, the Karluk. Both ships endured similar fates in their respective voyages. Dennis Perkins recorded these words about Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition:

The masts toppled and the sides were stove in, as shards of ice ripped the strong timbers to shreds. Frank Wild made a last tour of the dying vessel and found two crewmembers in the forecastle, fast asleep after their exhausting labor at the bilge pumps. He said, “She’s going, boys, I think it’s time to get off.” ( N. T. Perkins, Leading on the Edge, New York: AMACOM, 2000, p. 6.)

Both expeditions, a year apart, had been gripped in an icy vice that crushed their respective ships, forcing each party onto the ice and into horrific conditions. Yet similar circumstances, only poles apart, yielded dramatically different results. In the months following the Karluk’s destruction, the crew disintegrated into a conflict-­laden, self-centered group, which resulted in the death of eleven of its crew.

In contrast, Shackleton’s crew, although they too confronted harsh circumstances and conflict, emerged on dry land 634 days after the expedition began. Not a single man perished. Although they faced the same hellish conditions as Stefansson’s men did, they experienced a different fate. What made the difference? Shackleton’s calm leadership presence before his critics and naysayers. 

The ship’s surgeon, Alexander Macklin, captured this important leadership characteristic Shackleton embodied that contributed to the men’s survival.

“Shackleton at this time showed one of his sparks of real greatness. He did not rage at all, or show outwardly the slightest sign of disappointment; he told us simply and calmly that we must winter in the Pack, explained its dangers and possibilities; never lost his optimism, and prepared for winter.” (J. Marcuson, Leaders Who Last: Sustaining Yourself and Your Ministry, New York: Seabury Books, 2009, Kindle ebook, loc. 1117, emphasis mine)

Shackleton exemplified a key quality needed for every leader: engage your critics. In his time of crisis, he calmly connected to his men, especially the dissidents and troublemakers. It made the difference between life and death.

When our environment breeds anxiety and our critics try to stir up trouble, we can defuse this anxiety by calmly staying connected to them. Neuroscience actually verifies the biblical principle from Proverbs 15.1 that says, “a gentle answer turns away wrath.” It’s called emotional contagion. Others will catch our calmness which actually helps quiet the emotional centers in their brains responsible for anxiety and fear.

Men in Shackleton’s expedition noticed his calm, steady demeanor. When they were stuck on the ship, even one of his most pessimistic crewmen wrote these words in his journal.

“He is always able to keep his troubles under and show a bold front. His unfailing cheeriness means a lot to a band of disappointed explorers like ourselves. . . . He is one of the greatest optimists living.” (ibid, Kindle loc. 1182).

Shackleton keenly understood the importance of setting an example for his men on how to handle conflict and stress in a crisis. As you might imagine, living under such harsh conditions could easily cause arguments and disagreements. Yet those disagreements rarely disrupted unity because he developed an atmosphere that also encouraged dissent to be brought into the open.

Shackleton constantly faced four choices when confronted with dissident people, the same choices spiritual leaders face today:

  1. Pander and give in to critics to restore tranquility. Often because the critics are big givers or wield relational influence in our churches, we pander to them.
  2. Isolate or ignore critics, troublemakers and those with whom our personalities rub, thinking that if we don’t hear those voices, they will go away.
  3. Get defensive and power up to quiet the critic.
  4. Show courage and stay calmly connected to the critic.

Shackleton wisely chose the fourth option. Smart leaders do the same.

How have you managed the critics in your life?

(Taken and adapted from People-Pleasing Pastors: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Approval Motivated Leadership by Charles Stone. Copyright (c) 2014 by Charles Stone. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515, USA. www.ivpress.com.)

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The Glue that Makes Great Teams Great: Permission to Play Values

Every great organization shares common values unique to them. Whether it’s a church, a para-church organization, or a business, prevailing teams know and breathe their values, their shared assumptions about how they do things. I’m new at my church in Canada, having served in U.S. churches for over 30 years. Yet one of the first things I did was to share the 10 core values I wanted our team to embrace. I call them ‘permission to play’ values. In other words, if you want to play in our sandbox, here’s how we play. You may already have a great set of values that work for you, but if you don’t, this list I’ve developed over the past several years might provide a starting point for yours. Both Bill Hybel’s and Rick Warren’s lists have influenced mine. Here they are.

core values on blackboard

We value . . .

  1. Integrity.
    • Is. 32.8 But the noble man makes noble plans, and by noble deeds he stands. (NIV)
  2. A positive, coachable attitude. 
    • Phil. 4.8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things. (NIV)
  3. Volunteers
    • We work for them; they don’t work for us.
  4. Body, soul, and spirit care.
    • Luke 2.52 And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men. (NIV)
  5. Simplicity
    • Simple is best.
  6. Authenticity
  7. Teamwork and trust.
    • We keep short accounts with each other and subordinate our personal agendas to the church’s agenda.
  8. Continual growth and learning.
    • We welcome constructive feedback.
  9.  A healthy work ethic.
    • We work hard and have fun.
  10. Taking bold faith steps. 
    • We aren’t afraid to fail.

What staff values would you add to this list?

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