A volunteer agrees to complete a task but fails to deliver, or delivers a less than satisfactory outcome. A leader violates an established behavioral standard. What do you do? How do you redeem the situation?
Disappointment is inevitable when people are involved in ministry, but disappointment doesn’t have to be the final word. Delivering an effective feedback message in the face of disappointment can turn the situation around and introduce accountability into the volunteer relationship.
Many of us have learned to blindly accept less than desired or agreed upon outcomes. Often we choose to simply redo or complete a task ourselves, or work around a problem player. After all, congregations are volunteer organizations. What can you expect? We take what we can get.
Each time that we fail to address a disappointing outcome with one volunteer, we send a harmful message to all of our volunteers. We communicate that the ministry itself isn’t important enough to warrant excellence and accountability. We communicate that the overarching mission of the congregation is not as important as the volunteer’s feelings.
I suspect that we fail to confront because we fear that the conversation might get away from us. We aren’t sure how to start the conversation, or how to respond if the volunteer gets upset, denies that there is a problem, or blames others for the outcome. It is easier to say nothing, and if necessary, to do the task ourselves.
Describe the Situation-Behavior-Impact
The Center for Creative Leadership offers a simple model for giving specific feedback that is time tested and works.
Situation: Describe the Situation. Be specific about when and where the behavior occurred, or was supposed to occur.
Yesterday morning, I passed you in the hallway and you were having a conversation with John Q about the new building plan
Behavior: Describe the observable behavior. Don’t use generalities and don’t assume you know what the other person was thinking.
John said that he thought the plan was poorly conceived and downright stupid. You responded that you didn’t like the plan either and had never supported it.
Impact: Describe what you thought or felt in reaction to the behavior.
I was surprised to hear you lack of support for the plan, because you had never indicated those reservations during Council discussions on the topic. I was also hurt that you were not supporting a decision that we as a Council had all agreed upon together. I felt like you were being disloyal to me and other Council members.
Ask About Intention
Once you have clearly delivered your feedback, pause and ask the volunteer to offer an explanation about why they behaved as they did. “Why did you choose to have that particular conversation?” or “What were you hoping to accomplish?” or “What was your intent?”
Inquiring about intent prevents misperceptions and clears up incorrect inferences or assumptions on our part. It also transfers the responsibility for the conversation over to the volunteer. It is their turn to explain their thinking, assumptions, action or inaction. For example:
I feel really badly about that conversation. I never meant to betray the decision of the Council. John was berating me for supporting a plan that he did not like. The whole conversation got away from me and I wasn’t sure how to respond, so I just told him that I didn’t agree with the decision, so that I could end the conversation.
I don’t feel like I can comfortably speak up and express my viewpoints in Council meetings. When I express an opinion that is contrary to the popular opinion in the room, I feel pressured to conform. I don’t know why I should defend the Council, when I feel like my voice isn’t really represented in the decision making.
Once the intent is clearer, you can coach the volunteer about how to make better choices and resolve their performance issues in the future.
It is commonplace for the person being held accountable to avoid responsibility by redirecting the conversation. The volunteer may disagree with your assessment of their performance or the situation. They may blame you or others for their lack of performance. They may minimize the impact of their behavior. All of these responses are known as “sidetracks”. A sidetrack is meant to take the pressure off of the individual being confronted, and to focus the accountability elsewhere.
The most difficult sidetracks are those which are meant to implicate us in the failure. “You shouldn’t have been listening in on my conversation with John.” “I know that you aren’t crazy about the plan either, why are you supporting this initiative?” “You know that the only reason we settled on this building plan is because our Council President has a relationship with the architect that proposed it.”
It is easy to get hooked by the sidetrack. We get embroiled in a logic debate, and several minutes later find ourselves engaged in a conversation that has nothing to do with the behavior we were trying to address.
The simplest way to handle a sidetrack is to acknowledge the central truth in the statement, and then draw the conversation back to the performance issue at hand. The most effective way to do this is with the phrase, “But right now, …”
I am aware that eavesdropping on conversations is not an ethical practice. I wasn’t intentionally trying to listen in. But right now, I’d like to address your decision not to support the decision that we made together as a Council.
Whether or not I feel comfortable with the building plan is not the issue here. Right now, I’d like to talk about why you didn’t raise your concerns in our Council meeting, and why you chose to indicate your lack of support to someone who is not on the Council.
Restate the Standard
The final part of the accountability conversation should include a restatement of the standard.
I’d like to remind you that we have an agreed upon standard as Council members. We speak our personal truth to one another when we are in the midst of decision making. Once a decision has been made, we support that decision when speaking to non-Council members.
The work of volunteers is critical to the well-being of our congregations. Holding volunteers accountable for agreed upon performance standards is not as menacing as we often fear it will be. You can create a culture of accountability by modeling these conversations and training others to follow these simple conversational guidelines.
Susan Beaumont is a coach, educator, and consultant who has worked with hundreds of faith communities across the United States and Canada. Susan is known for working at the intersection of organizational health and spiritual vitality. She specializes in large church dynamics, staff team health, board development, and leadership during seasons of transition.
With both an M.B.A. and an M.Div., Susan blends business acumen with spiritual practice. She moves naturally between decision-making and discernment, connecting the soul of the leader with the soul of the institution. You can read more about her ministry at susanbeaumont.com.