Servant Leadership: Speaking Truth and Grace

One of the hardest things about being a leader is correcting employees in a loving way.  Greenleaf makes this comment: “Servant leadership always empathizes, always accepts the person but sometimes refuses to accept some of the person’s effort or performance as good enough” (Servant Leadership pg 33).  How does a servant leader effectively correct and encourage an employee toward better work? 

The two key components to this aspect of servant leadership are truth and grace.  Both are dependent on the other for effective management.  Truth without grace is harsh and can often do more damage than good.  Grace without truth enables bad behavior and won’t demand excellence.  Both are necessary to continue to develop a trust-filled working relationship with employees.

Too Much Truth?

Bill Robinson, former President of Whitworth University, speaks of his personal experience with being confronted with only truth and a lack of grace in his book Incarnate Leadership.  He was new to his youth ministry job when he was confronted by someone higher up in the staff.  After being blasted by this leader, he quit.  From this experience, he developed four key principles for confrontations:

  • “First, I will have a hard time hearing truth if I am busy defending myself.
  • Second, I will have a hard time identifying truth if the assault feels like it’s more for your good than for mine.
  • Third, I am not capable of accepting truth from you if the attack feels personal.
  • Fourth, I will stop thinking about truth if you make claims about my motives.  Only I know my motives – and I would rather you ask me what they are than tell me what you think they are” (80).

It is crucial when confronting an employee to come at the meeting with a mollified tone and thoughtful word choice.  If the employee feels threatened, then they will raise defenses and be closed to hearing what you say, even if it is the truth.  The way truth is said is just as important as the truth itself because otherwise it won’t be absorbed and will offend the employee.

What is Grace?

Speaking with grace can be difficult to fully explain.  Grace is part tone and word choice, part attitude, and part the spirit of God.  Richard Biery, in his lecture on Micah 6:8 at the 2009 CLA Conference, describes grace to us with a story about a Portland Trail Blazers basketball game.  Before the game, the 13 year-old girl who was chosen to sing the national anthem forgot the words half way through in front of 20,000 people.  The coach of the Trail Blazers jumped up immediately to help this girl sing the anthem.  He cannot sing worth anything but he knew the words and gets the audience to sing with them.  He transformed an embarrassing situation for this girl into an experience that gave the whole stadium energy and a positive start to the game.  Grace is a transformative power and energy that changes people’s lives, yet takes tremendous courage.  Transforming grace is the power of the gospel in our daily lives.  It is the power that can reach the depths of our souls to bring us healing, hope and promise for the future. 

Grace is also an attitude.  Having grace means that you give people the benefit of the doubt and are slow to make snap judgments about their behavior.  Having grace for others means that you believe that they have good intentions and good motives.  This doesn’t mean betting the farm on the perceived good intentions of someone you don’t know, but it does mean being positive and letting people prove themselves.  Having grace also doesn’t mean that you are a push-over when it is combined with truth.  Truth is the foundation on which grace can be gracious.

Speaking Grace and Truth at Employee Reviews

Southland Christian Church uses an effective way to review their employees.  In the podcast of their interview with Al Lopus; Kurt Braun, Charlotte Ewing, and Gordon Walls (the leadership team) talked about how they speak truth with grace to their employees about their performance. They created a formal process that included an evaluation form where employees could answer questions in a very narrative format.  Coming out of this, they realized that some employees needed truth spoken to them but their supervisors where not equipped to do so.  So they created a review process that included three people: the employee, the employee’s supervisor, and the supervisor of the supervisor.  That way if the supervisor couldn’t say what needed to be said, his or her supervisor could say it for them.  This system wasn’t flawless but it has been very effective in having the truth be spoken.  The third person in the room also keeps everyone accountable, it eliminates any problems with ‘he said, she said.’  The staff members have appreciated this system and have requested to keep the third person in the room, what started as a temporary fix has turned into an established practice because it works.

Southland Christian Church does formal reviews twice a year, once in the fall and once in the spring.  The meetings have taken a tone of collaboration; employees get to create their own goals with the input of their supervisor.  This time is also a time for self reflection and gives the staff member a space to be able to ask for additional training if needed.

The staff at Southland Christian Church have responded well to the review process because it fosters an environment of trust rooted in speaking truth with grace.  Both truth and grace are responsible for creating this kind of growth, it encourages employees to be better and excel at their work.  Truth and grace fosters creativity and innovation.  Robinson talks about the culture of grace in the workplace, comparing it to a climate of fear (Incarnate Leadership pg 84).  The climate of grace promotes risk, self direction, service of mission, spontaneity, and boldness.  On the other hand, the climate of fear promotes caution, obedience, service of leaders, secretive behavior, and tentatively.  In order to achieve your productivity potential, there needs to be a climate of grace in your workplace. 

Here are some questions you can ask yourself to see if there is a climate of truth and grace in your workplace:

  • Have your employees voiced their disagreement or hesitation about an idea recently (this week)?
  • Are your meetings filled with equally balanced discussion?
  • Is there discussion or silence after presentations from the management or leadership?
  • Do your employees quickly and genuinely apologize to one another when they say or do something inappropriate or possibly damaging?
  • Your employees openly admit their weakness and mistakes?

For more information about building and leading teams in truth and grace, read Patrick Lencioni’s book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.