Investigating ourselves

Conflict resolution? (source: www.freeimages.com)

Six months ago we commentated on incidents of ‘Friendly Fire‘ in our agencies.  Occasionally Syzygy comes across mission workers who feel they have been bullied by someone in leadership in their agency, and the agency didn’t take the issue seriously.  The situation has resulted in them leaving the mission field laden with negative emotions after they felt the agency has closed ranks against them when they raised this issue with management.  Such stress and attrition should be avoidable.

Perhaps these people were viewed as troublemakers.  Perhaps their perception of how they have been treated is not accurate.  Perhaps the agency didn’t think it was worth rocking the boat – we have occasionally heard it alleged that a particularly powerful individual within the agency was not worth challenging.

So how can agencies manage such situations well?

Principally, they should have a grievance procedure, and be committed to following it.  (A ‘grievance’ is the English term for the formal making of a complaint against an employer.)  The details of a grievance prcedure may vary from country to country according to local laws, but there should always be a procedure clearly laid out for mission partners to follow if an informal discussion with their leadership doesn’t resolve an issue to their satisfaction.  Unfortunately some agencies don’t have grievance policies, and confusion about whether mission partners are members/employees/self-employed can mean that processes like this which are mandatory in many countries are overlooked by agencies who like to think of themselves as a ‘family’.

A grievance procedure should outline a clear process which contains the following steps:

  • If a mission partner feels their complaint is not being taken seriously, they can put it in writing to their immediate leader (or their leader’s leader if the complaint is about the leader);
  • The mission partner is invited to make their complaint in person to someone who will investigate, having the right to take someone with them for moral support;
  • An investigation will be carried out with impartiality;
  • A written response will be given to the mission partner including information about how to appeal against the decision if they are not happy with it;
  • An appeal will be dealt with by a senior leader not directly associated with the field the mission partner is working in, or an independent third party if that is not possible;
  • External mediation is the final step,
  • If a grievance is made in good faith, but not upheld, the mission partner will not suffer any organisational backlash.

Throughout this process, the mission partner should be given confidentiality, and although complete anonymity may not always be compatible with a thorough investigation, the existence and investigation of the grievance should not be made known to people who are not involved in it.  It may be possible to offer the mission partner a temporary reassignment or leave of absence to remove them from a tense working environment while the grievance is being heard.

But as well as having a robust process for dealing with issues, the values of the agency should clearly include treating people well.  We claim to be a family, but we don’t always treat each other with the love that brothers and sisters deserve.  Whatever has happened, we must remember that all our mission partners are children of God, doing their best to fulfil the great commission, and that in line with biblical teaching we need to treat others with respect and deal with conflict in a godly manner in which the goal of any grievance should be the restoration of relationship.

A successful outcome would include:

  • reconciliation between the parties
  • recognition of sin on both sides, where appropriate, including structures within the agency
  • support for both parties to grow in followership and leadership skills

However, with the best will in the world, we may end up not being able to agree over an issue, and parting company, but if that is the case let us make every effort to ensure that people’s time in the mission field ends well, so that they do not nurse hurt, and can continue to be a good ambassador for our agency.

As an independent third party, Syzygy is happy to help any agency develop its grievance procedures or carry out a review of them.  Likewise, we are willing to listen to and support anyone who feels that their grievance has not been addressed.  For more information contact info@syzygy.org.uk.

Because even as we fulfil the great commission, we must remember to keep the greatest commandment.

Good leaders…

The biggest problem for many working people is that the actual work on their desks is the easiest part of the job. Nothing they are responsible for doing at work is especially challenging.  It’s only hard to do the job because of the politics, the stupid rules and the dark, fearful energy that flows throughout the workplace and bogs everyone down. A broken culture makes everything else harder, from organizing projects to getting critical approvals to move your work forward.[1]

In the above quote, Liz Ryan was writing about organisations in general, but she could just as easily have been writing about some of our churches and mission agencies.  On a previous occasion I wrote about the toxicity that lurks in some head offices, and while not wishing to repeat myself, I do want to ram the point home: I come across too many mission workers wounded by their own organisations.

Granted, some of these people may have been annoying, difficult people to work with (so good management starts with good recruitment) but in the kingdom of God we need to develop the desire and ability to work well with even some of the most awkward brothers and sister.

And that is the principal issue: no matter how abrasive or maverick these mission workers are, it’s the agency which has harmed them, at least in their opinion.  And we’ll come on to that issue another day, but we’ll stick with the agency for the moment.

So how do we recognise a culture which hurts people?  Three key characteristics are

  • rules become more important than people
  • doing becomes more important than being
  • results are more important than influence
  • decisions are imposed rather than discussed
  • debate is branded as dissent

The key to ensuring this doesn’t happen is to have leaders of good character.  They can be recognised by many characteristics but we think good leaders:

  • behave more like pastors than bosses
  • are open to hearing alternatives without feeling threatened
  • are emotionally intelligent enough to understand how they respond to others
  • put people’s wellbeing before the organisation’s
  • value people for who they are, not what they can achieve
  • are secure enough to recognise their own vulnerability and embrace it
  • are able to acknowledge and apologise for their own mistakes

How do we get our organisations to the place where this feels like real life?  Like any organisational change, it needs commitment from senior leaders who can recognise the need for change.  The people at the top set the agenda, and if they don’t, there will not be sufficient impetus for change.  This is not only the home or the field directors, but also trustees, and other influential people in the organisation.  For many of them this will need a change of mindset away from running a business to leading a community.  For want of a better model, many of us have adopted secular management strategies which turn our agencies into corporations.  These have the ability to subtly change our values to achieving goals, maintaining profitability and maintaining the reputation of the organisation, which although necessary, are not in themselves positive outcomes and can draw us away from biblical values.

Syzygy is happy to support agencies through implementing cultural change, and we recommend independent mentoring for all senior leaders to help them become the people God wants them to be.

[1] https://www.forbes.com/sites/lizryan/2016/10/19/ten-unmistakable-signs-of-a-toxic-culture/#49a9f802115f

Friendly fire?

Source: www.freeimages.com

Why are we still shooting our own people?

‘Toxic leadership’ is a phrase which buzzed around the mission world a few years ago, and then went away.  I haven’t heard it mentioned in a member care context for some time.  Perhaps we got bored with the issue.  Perhaps we thought talking about it for a bit resolved the problem.  Yet a number of incidents that have recently been brought to Syzygy’s attention remind me that, like Chernobyl, the fallout from one critical incident continues to have a devastating effect for many years.

  • Broken and hurting mission workers dealing with the pain of bullying and abuse, often for many years after the original incident.
  • Agencies losing good personnel for utterly avoidable reasons.
  • Churches grappling with supporting wounded mission partners who can’t easily be ‘fixed’.
  • People dismissed from their roles in circumstances that would count as unfair or constructive dismissal if they were UK employees.
  • Mission workers who have original or different ideas being victimised for challenging the status quo.

One influential member care agency uses the tagline “Because we don’t separate the Great Commission from the greatest commandment”.  Yet it seems that all too frequently in our eagerness to do the first, we don’t adequately care for our people, particularly if they have strong personalities or are not afraid to express their opinions.

A misguided model of leadership seeks to impose unity on a disparate group of mission workers  by demanding conformity, rather than building unity by valuing and affirming diversity.  Weak leadership imposes authority through domination rather than winning followers through serving.  Reluctant leadership abdicates, leaving the team without direction.  And people who speak out, complain, or even make constructive suggestions can be tagged as rebels, unfairly targeted, and removed from service.

In most cases, these situations result from structural weaknesses in our organisations rather than merely one or two poor leaders.  Often it’s not the result of deliberately abusive leadership but more to do with neglect of mission workers’ needs, lack of support or failure to intervene in difficult situations.   As Rob Hay wrote in 2012:

Mission is full of specialists and empty of trained, skilled and experienced leaders and yet up to 80% of people who go into mission not expecting to lead end up in some kind of leadership position.

Sadly, it seems nothing much has changed in the last 5 years.

How do we resolve this situation which seriously impedes our efforts to fulfil the Great Commission?  First, sending agencies have to be committed to valuing the people they partner with.  Mission partners need to be seen as valuable yet often fragile people  who need to be nurtured and developed.  They are not an expendable commodity to be exploited.  Agencies invest so much money in the early years of mission workers – recruitment, training, support, language learning – that it is also economically foolish to ignore these issues.  If the agency were an international business, high attrition levels would not be tolerated.  These need to be monitored closely as they are often a sign that something is wrong.

Second, churches need to understand the difficult dynamics of cross-cultural mission and be proactive in supporting their mission partners and working with agencies.   They need to be willing to ask difficult questions, and challenge agencies when problems arise.  One of the most encouraging things I ever saw was a group of church members haranguing an agency leader at a public meeting because they felt the agency was letting down their mission partners.  I thought “I want those people on my support team”!

Third, mission partners need to be honest with their churches and agencies about the real issues.  Misguided loyalty to failing leaders and leadership structures needs to be exposed, or it will merely be covered up and somebody else will get hurt further down the line.  People who have been hurt by an agency can be tempted to slip away quietly and lick their wounds – but they need to be supported and helped to fight their corner so that they expose bad leadership and force organisational change.  And agencies need to determinedly debrief workers (preferably with the involvement of a third party) and be committed to frank exit interviews – the ostensible reason people give for leaving is often not the whole story.

Finally, agencies need to be committed to addressing the problem Rob raised, by committing to proactively developing the character development, leadership ability and management skills of all their leaders.  Often they appoint people to leadership who have strategic vision and fruitful ministries but little interest in pastoral care.  They don’t have to be pastors themselves, but do need to understand the need for in-field member care and take steps to facilitate it.

Resources that Syzygy recommends for dealing with the fallout from toxic leadership issues include:

  • The books A Tale of Three Kings and Honourably Wounded for mission workers wounded in action.
  • A personal debrief for mission workers still struggling with injuries inflicted in the field.  Email info@syzygy.org.uk for more information.
  • Space to rest and reflect while receiving love and acceptance.  Syzygy can provide several options for this, and also recommends Ergata and Le Rucher.
  • Mentoring by Rick Lewis for leaders in mission.  A completely confidential, personal service aimed at developing godly character at the highest level in churches and agencies.
  • Reading Rob Hay’s 2012 paper on the Global Connections website and the associated reading list.
  • Bespoke consultancy aimed at identifying specific issues within an organisation and tackling the causes of it.  Email info@syzygy.org.uk for more information.

Being shot by one’s own side does not necessarily mean the end of a life of mission.  Given the right support, many people make a full recovery and are able to resume their lives and ministries, as I have done.

But wouldn’t it be better if we didn’t wound our own mission workers in the first place?