When “the wrong person” is your fault

I was just reading Acts 9, where Ananias pushes back on God’s request for him to go and lay hands on Saul. He basically tells God that Saul is clearly the wrong guy, and he strongly implies that he doesn’t want to work with him. He sounds like any number of managers I’ve met. Yet God responds,

Go, for Saul is my chosen instrument to take my message to the Gentiles and to kings, as well as to the people of Israel.

To put it in Jim Collins’ language, Saul is the right person for this particular seat on God’s bus. It’s not because he shows any potential for the role, though he proves to have an amazing resume for the job. Saul is simply the wrong guy, and then God turns him around, and he’s the right guy. How on earth do we apply traditional hiring, development and firing principles when God is in the business of makeovers and repentances?

That’s the setting for my post today. When the wrong person is in a job, or there’s a staff member who just can’t find the right assignment, what should our organizational response be? And what should we be doing as leaders in the organization?

When it comes to staff, I think parachurch agencies have to find the right middle ground. We should not be as quick to fire as (many) businesses, whose business model doesn’t allow the patience to retool and develop their staff. We also should not be too slow to fire when firing is warranted. I think it’s safe to say most Christian organizations tend more to the latter fault. We give people “one more chance” as they continue to gush their contamination throughout our departments and organization.

The question we need to be asking is whether the person is wrong or the role is wrong. I have seen many people who are wrong for one role — indeed poisoning those around them — take a completely different tack and find a role they flourish in. Perhaps my own experience has shaped my approach to this issue. Three or four times in recent years, I have taken a risk on someone with bad performance appraisals and offered them a new position that I had a hunch would work out for them. Taking them out of the circumstances that had exposed their weaknesses and playing instead to their strengths made all the difference.

These cases give me incredible satisfaction. Why? Because someone did the same for me. While I trained for graphic design and worked in that field for 8-9 years, I’m a long way from my major today. I’ve changed careers several times in Wycliffe. What prompted my first big career change was a miserable couple of years in a bad role. As I lost trust with my boss, my discontent turned to frustration and depression. I look back on those years as a low point in my management career and in my followership career. I was poison in that department. It’s taken a while, but I now point fingers at myself before I point them at my circumstances or my boss.

I think that’s the first part of the answer: as an organization or as a manager, we should point fingers at ourselves first. I’m reminded of three points Chip and Dan Heath made in Switch about pursuing change in an organization. In short, they expose our tendency as leaders to fault the other person when change isn’t going well.

  • What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity. Have we been clear in our instructions? Have we been clear in communicating expectations? Have we provided the training this person needs?
  • What looks like laziness is often exhaustion. Have we provided good performance management, support, encouragement and care for a staff member who is dry emotionally? Is the pace of change beyond what he can handle? Are we leading by force or engaging him in the vision of where we’re going?
  • What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem.

The Heaths quote Stanford psychologist Lee Ross’s Fundamental Attribution Error: a deeply seated tendency “to attribute others’ behavior to the way they are rather than to the situation they are in” (while generously doing the opposite with our own behavior).

So, leaders, when someone on your team is wrong for the job, take a look at yourself and the situation you have put them in. It may well be that the fault lies in your court.

You’ll notice my postings have really slowed down in recent weeks. That’s because thoughts on this topic don’t come readily to me. When I said I wanted to wrestle through these issues, I meant it. So I welcome your thoughts. Agree? Disagree? Am I being too naive? Want to push back? Join the discussion!

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3 thoughts on “When “the wrong person” is your fault

  1. I would say that in our organization supported members need to be handled differently from paid staff. For members, we should shift them around until they find their place; if God provided the funds for them to make it here, He must have a place for them. For paid employees, however, we shouldn’t be much more forgiving than a regular employer; maybe a little more forgiving so we don’t get a bad name or build insecurity and resentment, but not much. We’re paying them with God’s money, after all, so if they’re not doing their job well, get someone who will!

    • Thanks for your comment, Bob. I would argue that we should hold the same standard for a position (“assignment”) at Wycliffe, whether the person is paid staff or not. We have systems in place where someone can still be a member of Wycliffe and try to find another position that’s a better fit. But I’m uneasy about a supervisor holding two different standards for their staff’s performance.

  2. Pingback: Don’t blame them for being misled « the back row leader

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