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Books for those in ministry organizations who desire to take their leadership, teams, governance, and ministry effectiveness to the next level.

23 Mar '13

What leaders need to know

Posted by T.J. Addington in defensiveness, listening, robust dialogue
Have you ever sat down with a friend or colleague or leader to gently try to tell them something that they really needed to hear but the moment they realized you were addressing something they perceived as critical, the defenses went up, the body language told you that the conversation was not going to be easy and instead of a dialogue there was only a defensive response?

This is all too common, especially among ministry types (I am one) who seem to be more defensive than the general population because their ministry (what they do) is so wrapped up with themselves (who they are) that it is hard for them to take a step back, listen to counsel, advice or honest feedback without feeling that they and their ministry are being attacked.

The result for ministry leaders is that they often do not hear what people are really thinking because they have trained them that they are not responsive to honest feedback that they might construe as criticism.

I was once tasked to solve a difficult financial issue and when I presented my findings and solutions to my ministry leader he became angry, defensive and called me arrogant. Why? Because he did not want to hear "bad news" that challenged his paradigm of how things should be. With a response like that, he was training his people not to give him honest feedback because we knew that he didn't want to hear it and that it would not be a pleasant conversation.

This raises two questions for leaders. The first is, "Can I overcome my fear of hearing something that I may not want to hear and do so in a way that invites honest feedback rather than pushing it away?"

The reason we would resist honest feedback is that we are fearful that it reflects poorly on us. That is the source of our defensiveness. It is also an indication of poor emotional intelligence (EQ) because people with healthy EQ are open, non-defensive, and exhibit a "nothing to prove, nothing to lose" attitude. Indeed they not only invite feedback but when they get it they engage in non-defensive conversation to draw out the issues and seek to understand what the individual is saying.

In Proverbs, it is the classic "fool" who resists counsel and feedback, while the "wise" invites it and listens to it.

This raises a second important question: "Why would I risk the danger of not knowing what people really think by resisting honest feedback?" The end result of defensiveness in the face of feedback is that people often stop telling us what they really think and only what they think we want to hear.

There are two predictable outcomes of this scenario. One is that we don't know what is going on within our own team or organization and the second is that our defensiveness creates cynicism by people who do not feel like they can be honest. Both are dangerous for a leader.

I once suggested to a Christian leader whom I consulted with that he did not know what his people really thought about him because of his defensive attitude. He just looked at me with a blank face that said, "I don't care." He is in for a rude awakening when his leadership comes apart and he discovers that he has alienated many of his staff. His fear of knowing their true feelings was greater than the danger of not knowing but he will discover that in the end the danger of not knowing is higher than the fear of knowing.

Healthy leaders want honest feedback for the sake of their ability to lead well and for the health of the organization. Their healthy EQ invites honest conversation and they keep their anxiety and fear under control so that they are open to suggestions, critique and feedback. They listen carefully and then evaluate the information for its truth or relevancy. They do not need to agree with the feedback but they want to know what people are thinking.