By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.
Director, Yeshua Catholic International Leadership Institute

Many of us in leadership roles believe we’re pretty good at what we do, we value our people, we are familiar with their wants and needs, and we go out of our way to meet them.

Ironically, part of delivering on our leadership aspirations is recognizing that team members’ needs change and admitting upfront that we can’t always satisfy those needs.

A case drawn from the life of a non-profit, church-based organization illustrates these realities. The 6-member team consisted of people with diverse backgrounds and interests. They ranged in age from the early 20s to the mid-50s. The younger ones were mostly single, the older ones mostly married. Some were grandparents. Some were college graduates with advanced degrees, others were high school graduates with technical skills learned on the job.

Team members also performed a diverse mix of duties, most of the time working individually in their respective areas of expertise to produce a church publication. That common goal caused them to interact briefly with one another to varying degrees during the work day, and once a week they met as a team to assess the prior week’s performance and plan for the coming week’s production cycle.

In the main, they were a team of people who worked hard, got along well on the job, but did not socialize after work. “We were all in very different life situations and we all had full lives off the job, so we were all happy to leave the team and the workplace at the end of the day,” the team leader recalls. “Even when it came to our annual Christmas party, team members weren’t keen on spending an evening together. We always agreed to schedule the party at lunch rather than give up an evening of personal time.”

Then, rather suddenly, things changed. One of the older members of the team got divorced. And soon after that, she was urging the team to spend more time together. She began expressing an interest in time for common prayer, worship, day-long retreats and social outings. She framed her aspirations in terms of building a greater sense of community among team members.

The activities she suggested were the sort of things that often do build stronger teams. The problem was, no one else on the team was the least bit interested in any of her suggestions — and after a while, the others were noticeably uncomfortable when she raised the issue at weekly team meetings. Some team members even approached their leader for assurances that he wouldn’t accede to her proposals.

The leader didn’t want to lose any of his team members, but he recognized that the tension was affecting their interaction. Not only were they pulling back from their colleague’s suggestions for greater group interaction, they were also pulling back from working as a cohesive unit to solve the team’s challenges.

As tension mounted and the woman became more frustrated about other team members’ indifference to her proposals, the leader decided he had to act. After much thought and not a little prayer, he called the woman into his office and told her they had to have a talk. He opened the discussion by mentioning that he had noticed her frustration and he wanted to inquire more about it.

For the next 15 minutes the woman outlined all the reasons why it would be good for team members to pray, worship and socialize together. However, not once did she comment on the drastic change in her personal status or the fact that her interest was of such recent vintage — emerging only after several seemingly satisfying years on the job.

Rather than raise that issue immediately, the leader asked the woman how she proposed to increase the team’s interaction when the other team members were so resistant. The woman acknowledged the other team members’ reluctance, but framed it in terms of a leadership challenge. The leader should just compel team members’ participation in a host of new activities.

Without being defensive, the leader responded by noting that for years the woman had shown no interest in the things she was proposing, and he asked her if she had any idea why these things suddenly appealed to her. At first she didn’t see a connection. But after a little gentle probing, she began to connect the dots. She had been a wife for many decades had raised a big family. Rather suddenly she was alone in a big house, cut adrift from the family circle that had been her preoccupation for more than a quarter of a century. She had a lot of time of her hands, she wanted to use it well, and she was turning to her workplace for help doing that.

It was time for the leader to level with the woman about the limits of their workplace. He acknowledged that her new expectations were reasonable ones in some environments — and they might even lead to greater team performance in some places. But he confessed that he felt obliged to respect the strong preferences of other team members. He advised the woman that it was not realistic to expect more from her workplace than it was presently giving her. But he also encouraged her to explore other alternatives and offered to help her with that.

When she expressed an interest in help, rather than offering solutions, the leader asked her to think about what possible options she might have. With a little prodding, the woman identified several individuals she knew who might be in a position to spend more time with her. She decided to begin contacting them about going out to dinner, plays and church-related activities. In a few months she had cultivated some new friendships, built a loose knit community of women in similar circumstances, and was no longer looking for her workplace team to satisfy her new needs.

Not all stories about staff members’ drastically changing needs and expectations turn out so well. But many of them do. And behind the stories with happy endings you will generally find a team leader to cares about his or her people, is sensitive to their changing needs, and is honest about what the workplace can and cannot provide for them.

Integrity begins by accepting the things we cannot change — but working together to make sure they don’t derail our quests for satisfying, purposeful lives.

Copyright © 2010 Yeshua Catholic International Leadership Institute, 208 E. North St., Durand, IL 61024. Any part of this newsletter may be reproduced so long as there is full attribution, our web site is listed, and any electronic reproduction includes a link to our site:

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