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The first God at Work, Unanswered Questions took place on Monday 14 January 2013 when Eamon Mooney of Kennedys spoke and led the first discussion on a Christian approach to managing staff.  Here is an extract of his talk:

I wonder whether the challenges facing Christians in the workplace today are not dissimilar to those 10 or 20 years ago: it remains the fundamental need to keep our trust in God and live that out in all areas of our lives. Perhaps it is just the background scenery that has changed. In that context, we are thinking a little tonight about the challenges of managing staff for a Christian or of being managed as a Christian. Most of us manage others to some degree. All of us are managed by others to some degree. Therefore, we should have a view, an approach to how we as Christians address such challenges.

I should say at this point that I am not in a position to provide a clear path forward in some of the things that we might talk about tonight. I do not profess to be an expert but it is an area that I have grappled with on many occasions over the years.

So what are the problems that have to be faced in managing staff?

  • Performance issues
  • Problems between staff
  • Development
  • Downsizing, redundancy and disciplinary processes

How do we tackle those in a way that honours the Lord but does not make us a soft touch in a hard commercial world? Some of you may work in the charity sector or in public service. The issues are no less real, although for you it may not all be about making a profit at the end of the day. For my part, I have always worked in the legal profession and the purpose of the businesses within which I have worked has always been about meeting targets and making profit, pure and simple.  We each come from a different background, with different experiences and the hope is that tonight allows us to share some of that.

The Bible in general, and the Gospels in particular, give clear guidance upon our attitude to life, God and others but they do not give specific instructions upon how to deal with the challenges of handling a redundancy situation or how to address a disruptive member of staff, the approach to take with people who are lazy or people who are overburdened with work. Jesus was decidedly coy when it came to such questions. So we have to work our own path through on that and I’ll be interested to see how you identify that path. One way to do that is to lean on the guidance and experiences of others who have had to manage people in the past.

Each team, each office, each business is a community of sorts. It may be a community that has been put together by others rather than the members having chosen each other, but a community it is nonetheless. In considering how to deal with those challenges I have found myself particularly drawn at times over recent years to the Rule of St Benedict and find Benedict to be one of those people upon whose experience and guidances I have leaned.  Benedict lived in the 5th and 6th Centuries and wrote his rule for a collection of followers – probably about a dozen – who gathered round him and lived in community.  It is a short document – you could read it in an hour.

Why do I find myself drawn to what Benedict has to say? I am not a frustrated monk; it is not because I wish to have my teams chanting; it is not because I would impose some form of a vow of silence (although I am sorely tempted with one or two individuals). Rather, it is because what Benedict has to say in his Rule – a simple and down to earth document – reflects a tradition that now stretches back 1,500 years, which arose when the Roman Empire was collapsing and has (in various forms) stood the test of time. There is often a tendency to reinvent ourselves continuously – we see that with business constantly. But, we are not the first to grapple with the issues that we face in a business community and it would be arrogant of us to think that God has stored up all his wisdom for 2013 – that none before gleaned anything worthwhile from their journey. The approach that Benedict took itself built upon what others had done before him. For me, Benedict’s approach has value for this reason: it aims to build up a community lovingly but fairly and it is very very practical. It has proven its worth over the centuries and it has been a tool used by many others to steer the way that believers should approach the continuous rubbing up against one another that happens in any community (faith or business).

Importantly, for what we are thinking about this evening, I find that it has something to offer when looking for a sound pattern for the Christian leader or manager of a community and it has a lot say about the management of people.

The vast majority of it is not new. It might come as a surprise to some to realise how much of the Rule of Benedict is made up of direct scriptural quotes but it covers such issues as living in community, leading, praying, working and managing difficult (and sometimes hurting) people.  Now clearly this analogy can only carry so far – one of the steps in correcting faults advocated by Benedict (and culturally acceptable at the time) was the use of corporal punishment which I hope you would agree is not entirely appropriate as a tool in people management in the workplace today.  Also, one of the big differences between our situations and those faced by Benedict is that in most of our work contexts (compared with those for whom Benedict’s rule was written) we are not surrounded by Christians with whom we share a common purpose – although, of course, we do share common purpose with our colleagues in other ways. So, I am not for one moment suggesting that Benedict’s rule can merely be laid on top of my work (or my own spiritual life). Plainly it cannot. However, there remain tried and tested insights, principles and methods of approach that can help me to determine how I should act as a Christian in managing people.

Some thoughts on management principles

Let me quickly draw out some thoughts in that context. The first words of Benedict’s rule are: “Listen carefully…”. Leaders and managers need to listen: it is the only way to understand the concerns, worries, strengths and weaknesses of those who work for us. At times I find that the overriding need to reach a quick decision or the fact that I arrogantly know that I already have a solution before I have fully explored the problem mean that I constantly have to force myself to stop and listen: some times more successfully than others.

As you would expect, one of the all embracing themes that Benedict applies when looking at the approach of the Abbot or Abbess as the leader and manager of the community is that he or she should be Christ like in the approach to those under his or her care. Whilst we often do not know the answer, it does seem to me that in all areas we constantly need to be asking the question: “What would Jesus do in this situation?”.

Beyond that, there are a number of themes that Benedict highlights when considering what a manager or leader needs to be [and I know that being a manager and being a leader are different but, as there is a clear cross over between the two and see we don’t have time today, let me put that to one side]. So, according to Benedict, there are three roles that the manager needs to carry out: that of a shepherd, that of a doctor and that of a steward and I want to have a quick look at those.

  • A shepherd
    • Watching out for those under his charge and showing flexibility to “adapt with understanding to the needs of each” – one size does not fit all when it comes to managing people
    • The shepherd willing to leave the 99 to search for the one: an ability to manage the weak and the strong.
  • A doctor
    • Knowing how to heal the wounds of others: identifying problems and difficulties and seeking out ways to cure those problems
    • That may involve getting one or two more senior members of the team to come alongside the person with problems or looking for training and guidance to be put in place – this implies that the manager already has one or two people that he or she has identified to come alongside the person who is struggling
    • But as well as being a healer, Benedict suggests that the good manager must also be prepared to be a surgeon when necessary: “the superior must turn to the knife for amputation lest one diseased sheep corrupt the whole flock” – there is a need to look after the interests of all and not just the one (whether the “all” is other members of the time, clients, partners or the business);
  • A steward
    • The person in charge cannot do with what is in their charge as they will; there is a responsibility (in my instance) to my partners, to the other members of the team and to the clients.
    • The superior should entrust the property of the monastery [the project, the job, the client] to various members of the community whose character and reliability inspire confidence“: So this is not suggesting that all are treated or regarded equally.  Equally, this is not about overlooking faults and weaknesses

Benedict suggests that all of those should be held in tension and that the leader or manager must act in balance. Interestingly, he also talks about people in the community being treated differently as their needs demand and ensuring that they work hard but are not overworked.  All good principles. So those are just a few thoughts that I draw from Benedict. We have a responsibility to help people deal with the challenges they face but we have a responsibility to also ensure that the other people in the team, office, firm are not unduly prejudiced by the failings or challenges of a single member of the team. However, even when dealing with that I think that I must never forget that I am expected to be the representation of Christ to those around me and that I am still a shepherd to the ‘problem’ team member.

Let me give you two examples where those issues come together:

  1. Managing performance
    1. A member of a team doesn’t develop in basic areas of attention to detail. The result was that many minor but important points were not accurate, which is a fundamental problem.
    2. The risk is that this person would drop the ball, damaging client relationships and reducing the instructions to the team from clients and making other good team members’ position more precarious.
    3. The approach: keep bringing the person back to the problem, be honest about the risks (which involved some upset) and keep a very close watch upon their work.
    4. But, the improvement that flows from that was minor over an intensive 12 month period.
    5. Eventually, a formal competency process is started.
    6. Within that the manager might sit down with that person and told them that they were perfectly entitled to follow through that process but that (after a year of trying) there is a risk that it would not turn around; the person might be offered a discussion with HR to try to find a solution out and lead to a compromise. The team is protected, the person can leave with their integrity intact: keeping in tension the role of shepherd, doctor and steward.
  2. Perceived unfairness
    1. When under pressure, people will often look at those around them to see how they are performing and how they are being treated.
    2. Part of a manager’s role is to try to get the best out of the people who work for them and to be sensitive to their needs to develop.  That means that all are not at the same point and, indeed, all do not have the same potential.
    3. This can lead to tensions when one person perceives that they are being criticised for not doing something that is not being asked of them.
    4. Approach: listen [one of the way that Benedict expected his abbots to run communities was to listen to the views of all in the community from the least to the most experienced but then the leader would decide having listened].  Having listened: encourage, explain.  Again, keeping the role of shepherd, healer and steward in tension.