Accountability in the Age of COVID

Balancing eggs

In the early days of the pandemic, accommodation was the name of the game when it came to helping staff negotiate huge work/life challenges. Inadequate technology at home, loss of childcare, children studying virtually from home, and spouses negotiating shared workspace. We leaned heavily into the grace side of our employment relationships. Now staff teams are experiencing some of the downsides of grace without accountability.

Some staff responded well to the extension of grace. They negotiated the new circumstances quickly and returned to pre-pandemic levels of productivity. Others continue to struggle with circumstances that overwhelm. They are not functioning as productive members of the team, or they are taking too much supervisory time and attention. It is time to make some adjustments.

New Staff Team Dynamics

As the pandemic drags on, new challenges to staff teams are surfacing. There have always been underperformers on the team, employees who do not meet our expectations. And we have always had overperformers who are inclined to work excessive hours and extend beyond the boundaries of their role to fill the performance gap left by others. The over/underperformance gap has been widening during the pandemic for a variety of reasons.

  • Unequal life challenges: We have all encountered challenges in response to the pandemic. But some employees face extraordinary personal circumstances. A single parent negotiating the demands of full-time employment and home schooling entirely on her own. An employee who suddenly became the primary caretaker of an aging parent. Some staff, initially eager to accommodate the needs of others, are growing weary of the expectation that they will self-sacrifice to accommodate the life circumstances of others.
  • Varying degrees of resilience. Resilience means adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, or significant sources of stress. The pandemic highlights the resilience capacity of our staff. Some adapt quickly to continually changing circumstance. Others adapt more slowly and still others have been incapacitated by anxiety and disorientation. Early on, some supervisors stepped into a pastoral care role with those staff who were having a hard time coping. Those supervisors are having difficulty resuming a supervisory mindset.
  • Uneven technology capability: The pandemic has made it abundantly clear who is technology-capable. Those without technology skills have become less useful to the team. They are often left out of communication and decision making, creating shifting power dynamics on the team.
  • Working onsite vs. offsite. Some members of the team never left the building. Others worked remotely for a period but are now back in the building. Still others continue to work remotely with no informal interaction with others. This is creating new insider/outsider dynamics on the team.

Utility is Core to Health

Employment relationships are healthiest when they manifest utility, a perceived sense of usefulness and value for both the employee and the employer. The supervisor must feel that the employee contributes enough value to the organization to justify the assets invested in the relationship. Similarly, the employee must feel that whatever they get out of the job (salary, benefits, personal growth) warrants their long-term investment in the organization.

The pandemic has diminished the utility of some members on the team. Music directors may be floundering because they cannot work with their choirs in person and their skills do not translate well in an online environment. Program coordinators are frustrated as they create online offerings that congregants have little interest in, or no bandwidth to engage. Meanwhile, some communication coordinators and tech support staff have stepped front and center in their importance on the team.

The loss of utility is not just a problem for an employer, it is also a problem for the employee who begins to feel useless and undervalued. Employee self-esteem takes a hit and that impacts performance.

Restoring Utility

Finding our balance in this unsettling season requires the restoration of utility for all members of the team. This next section is for those of you who supervise—because it is up to you to restore balance. These five practices will allow you to extend grace while inviting accountability.

  1. Revisit and clarify expectations now. Performance expectations have evolved for almost every member of the team during the pandemic. It is a mistake to adopt a wait-and-see stance before revisiting job expectations. We are not likely to reach a settled state anytime soon. Make it a point to regularly clarify your current expectations with each member of the team. No job description is static—especially now.
  2. Provide regular feedback. One-on-one feedback is more important now than ever before. Are people meeting your expectations? No one assumes that “no news is good news” in an anxious season like this one. Your staff need to hear from you directly, or they are likely to make up their own inaccurate narrative about how things are going. For the time being, it makes sense to suspend the annual performance review, as expectations are changing too frequently to allow a thoughtful process. However, regularly scheduled check-ins with each employee you supervise are a must.
  3. Make the hard decisions as clarity emerges. Most of us cannot yet predict the staffing model we will need on the other side of the pandemic, but as clarity emerges you should take appropriate action. Some congregations have not suffered financially during the pandemic and have maintained their full team, regardless of the utility that each member of the team provides. Once it is evident that the 8:30 am worship service is not returning, do not hang on to the worship leader for that service—unless they bring a utility to the team and can be reassigned elsewhere.
  4. Resist taking care of the underperformer. As a supervisor, it is not your job to “take care of” struggling staff members. Your primary responsibility is to establish clear expectations and provide consistent feedback, so that employees can successfully manage their own performance and increase their own utility. You can be compassionate and empathetic as you engage your supervisory role, but you do not serve the employee well if you over invest in their personal problems. Build the personal resilience of others by maintaining consistent standards and creating firm boundaries around what will and will not be accommodated.
  5. Discourage overfunctioning. We are in this for the long haul. It is not healthy for the team or for individuals on the team when high achievers overfunction in an effort to close the performance gap left open by others. Overperformers need firmly established boundaries every bit as much as underperformers do. They need to leave space for the underperformers to step up. They need help with self-differentiation and self-care, to know when they have done enough.

We will all weather this season better if we nurture the utility of each employee on the team. Some staff need to step up. Others need to step back. And some staff probably need to go. Adjusting ourselves on the continuum between grace and accountability is key to restoring balance on the team.

How to Lead When You Don't Know Where You're Going
Inside the Large Congregation cover
When Moses Met Aaron cover
Susan Beaumont is a consultant, coach and spiritual director. Susan is a practical contemplative. She works at the intersection of organizational health and spiritual guidance. Specializing in the unique dynamics of large congregations, Susan’s work focuses on staff team dynamics, board development and leadership in times of transition. Rev. Beaumont is the author of How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going and Inside the Large Congregation and co-author of When Moses Meets Aaron.