Trust and Authenticity in the Workplace

Used with permission.

How honest can we Christians be with each other in a Christian workplace?

  • Do we trust one another enough to say what we really think about the workplace environment and culture without fear of retribution?
  • Is anonymous feedback all we can get?
  • Does anyone in management even ask what people think?

A caring leader will want all employees and volunteers to have a good experience and feel significant, valued, and fulfilled as they contribute to the ministry’s success. All of these good things should happen if staff and volunteers believe they can safely bring concerns and suggestions to management.

Christian Faith in the Workplace

If people are afraid to speak up, something is wrong. Isn’t our faith all about reconciled relationships, love, grace, forgiveness and forbearance? Aren’t we all one in Christ with no Greek or Jew, male or female, master or slave?

Yes, we have power differentials and hierarchy to assist with coordination and decision-making, but they must never be used to run roughshod over our co-labourers in mission and create a bad work environment. Our Christian faith levels all differences between people, including workmates.1 Everyone in a ministry workplace is a peer; just peers with different responsibilities. Treat them well and care for them.

The Christian way of living and working together in community is the way of authenticity, transparency, and vulnerability. We are supposed to:

  • be real with one another
  • learn to understand each other
  • be Christ to one another

Even in the workplace!

Let’s get real

What I’ve described is very idealistic, the way things should be and will be when we have all reached perfection in the image of Jesus Christ.2 But unfortunately, we are all at various stages on the journey towards perfection. And that means that workplaces might be, or probably are, less than the ideal.

As a senior leader, I believe my leadership should be such that people feel completely safe sharing difficult things with me. It’s my job to create an environment in which people can safely say what they really think, even to me – the CEO. While I may hear some hard things from time to time, it is all for my good. I need to know rather than not know. In fact, the only way I can protect myself against CEO Disease is to make it safe for people to express a concern or complaint that they have, not just about the workplace, our strategy, or our decisions, but even things about me personally.

What about anonymous feedback?

People may be more willing to tell the truth if they can do so anonymously. Anonymous feedback has its pros and cons, and they differ depending on whether it is the only kind of feedback received or if it complements other forms of feedback.

Anonymous Feedback Only

Anonymous feedback is a way to start moving towards trust and authenticity if you haven’t already got it. Even though anonymous feedback on its own isn’t all that helpful, it is better than nothing at all. It can be quite a wake-up call if management hasn’t asked for feedback before, or if management is unknowingly contributing to a bad work environment. It is particularly helpful if leadership is simply blissfully unaware of what is happening outside its own ranks.

Boards should require anonymous feedback obtained through an independent third party as a prudent check on the kind of leadership being given by the senior leader.

I highly recommend the Best Christian Workplace survey as the instrument to use for anonymous feedback. CCCC brought it to Canada more than a decade ago to help Christian workplaces become truer to our faith and we still use it ourselves every few years.

The problem with anonymous feedback, particularly if it is the only feedback you get from staff and volunteers, is that it is really hard to interpret on its own. For example, if the survey asks only for numerical ratings, there is no context for the response. If staff report a distrust in leadership, why is that?

  • Was there a miscommunication between parties?
  • Did the staff member have an unrealistic expectation that wasn’t satisfied?
  • Is management really not to be trusted?
  • Is it management in general, or a particular manager?

You don’t know and cannot know.

You might take the anonymous information and dig deeper with another anonymous survey that asks the question again but also asks for an explanation of the score. But people won’t want to be very specific for fear of identifying themselves. Remember, most Christian churches and ministries are quite small in terms of staff: two-thirds of the thousands of CCCC members have between one and ten employees. It probably wouldn’t be hard for them to guess who said what! By the same logic, you are even less likely to have anyone speak up in a focus group.

This reality leaves leadership uncertain about what the exact issue is, and with no clue as to who they should talk with to better understand the score.

Anonymous & Direct Feedback

If you are getting direct feedback, for example in meetings between managers and their direct reports, anonymous feedback is a good test of the quality of the direct feedback. The direct and anonymous feedback should be the same, if everyone is speaking up and voicing their honest opinions.

Anonymous feedback coupled with direct feedback provides good corroboration that people are giving direct feedback that accurately reflects what they really think. This gives leadership a lot of confidence in what people are telling them.

Authentic face-to-face feedback

What we all should really want is a Christian work environment that doesn’t need anonymity in order to receive honest feedback. Anonymity, in my view, runs counter to everything Christianity stands for in terms of human relations. At CCCC, the leadership team is committed to leading in as Christlike a way as possible. We want everyone to feel safe to express their feelings to their manager, and to myself as the organizational leader.

I have attached two documents to help you start having great discussions with your team members one-on-one:

  1. One is the CCCC employee policy for One-on-One Discussions. It contains both the policy and the set of questions we ask at each One-on-One meeting. We hold these meetings every other month, and each meeting has its own set of questions. Over the course of a year, we cycle through all the questions that we want to ask. We always ask three questions: about themselves, about leadership, and about the organization. In addition, staff are free to bring up anything they want, and if leadership has a particular concern it wants to research, we can add an additional question.
  2. The other document is a template that tracks:
    1. actionable items from the meeting
    2. follow-up on last meeting’s actionable items
    3. progress on the employee’s development plan

Download one-on-one documents

Feel free to adapt these documents to your own situation. I got the idea from Barry Slauenwhite, President of Compassion Canada.

Creating the Environment for Trust & Authenticity

Leadership Response

We leaders have to work at overcoming the imperfections in ourselves so we can receive all kinds of feedback and respond as the good stewards we have been called to be. If you ask employees and volunteers what they think, you’d better be ready to hear people challenge your strategy, the culture, your leadership, and so on. It isn’t always pretty!

Trust and authenticity cannot even begin to develop in the workplace if leaders at any level are not willing to accept it. Therefore, building a workplace where trust and authenticity reign begins with the leaders getting the right attitudes to support such a workplace.

Leaders should start by recognizing that they are neither perfect nor omniscient and can always benefit from other perspectives. Leaders, be humble and don’t be self-centred. You’ll do much better if your focus is on the ministry’s mission and the employee’s welfare rather than on your own personal success and interests.

In staff meetings and one-on-one meetings where people are expressing their opinions and observations, be aware of your body language, tone of voice, and choice of words. Even if you don’t like how it is being said, keep an open mind.

  • If they are talking about your own personal leadership, ask yourself, “Is there some truth in it?” Even if you think the person is completely wrong, ask yourself, “If I wanted to be even a better leader in that area, what would I do differently?”
  • If they are challenging a strategy or a practice that you think is the right one, ask yourself, “What objective evidence do I have that the strategy/practice is still viable today or will be tomorrow?” Research it. You may be surprised.

Close the loop on the conversation by getting back to the person. Thank them for raising their point and tell them what you did as a result and why. Encourage them to come to you any time they have a concern or suggestion.

What colour is this sculpture? Are you sure?

A different perspective can reveal new information!

Culture

Create a culture that invites critique and inquiry for the sake of the mission and organizational health. Be clear that critiques are not about assigning blame but about finding ways to do things better. Welcome the opportunity to delve deeper into organizational life and work.

Let team members know that their safety and welfare is a concern of top management.

Get in the habit of asking creative questions that invite many different perspectives to be aired. Some great questions appear in a fun post I wrote titled Imagination – the spark that ignites.

Policies

To protect staff from our own failings as Christian leaders, have a conflict resolution policy for dealing with employment-related matters, and an ethics/whistleblower policy dealing with ethical issues.

Have a clear position that no staff member will suffer for being honest in their relationship with their manager.

Download personal reflection guide

Trust & Authenticity

In the end, after you have prepared yourself to receive feedback in a positive way and have created the environment for safe expression of opinions, whether people will actually offer their thoughts is up to them. Some people are just too intimidated for one reason or another and will not say anything. The anonymous feedback is the only way you will hear from them. But at least you have done everything in your power to help them have a voice.

My prayer for you is that you will have a workforce of staff and volunteers who enjoy and get life from the work they do for your ministry, that they and you will be one happy, trusting team, and that there will be authentic bonds of Christian love between you as brothers and sisters in Christ.

Now, if you have any suggestions of your own, please use the Comments field to share them with us.

Key Thought: Christians should be able to have safe relationships with each other, even in the workplace.

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