Posted in Leadership

Infraction: Ask the Humanizing Question

When they send a terse email. When they pick a (metaphorical) fight in a meeting. When they’re emotionally unengaged in an important conversation. When they make a rash decision. It’s these times when we need to ask the humanizing question.

In a previous post titled, “When a leader should confront” I suggested Ken Sande’s tip on determining whether a person needed to be confronted for some sort of poor behavior. His idea of the “humanizing question” was in that post, but I wanted to go a little further with the content.

So what’s the humanizing question? Ken Sande, in his book The Peace Maker says it this way:

“The humanizing question looks at an infraction and uses not only a situational view of the person who committed infraction, but also a dispositional view. When we feel we are wronged, we often ask, ‘What’s the matter with that person?’ instead of, ‘Why would a reasonable, rational, and decent person do that?’”

“Why would a reasonable, rational, and decent person do that?”

Whether for a staff member, church member, friend or family member, ask the humanizing question before you take your judgments or your response too far.

The humanizing question is similar to giving the benefit of the doubt. It’s a grace giving question. But when there’s an infraction this question can create enough pause to help you uncover if there’s something larger that’s going on, perhaps something with their infraction is just a symptom.

Recently, a minister from another state contacted me. He and his church’s leadership were determining whether an employee who resigned quickly, and in poor form, should be “sought after.” And not only to be sought after to be restored relationally, but restored to the position from which she resigned.

My counsel was limited, but the humanizing question came to mind…why would a reasonable, rational, and decent person resign that way? Had this employee acted like this before? Had they shown evidence of rash behavior before?

So What’s the Humanizing Question Going to do?

The purpose of the humanizing question is to help you understand if there is a cause/effect relationship with their behavior. And that information can inform your response to their behavior.

Now, that said, extenuating circumstances in one’s life does not mean fair game on poor behavior. But, grace should abound with extenuating circumstances.

What Happens After You Get Answers?

If there’s a pattern of these infractions, well, deal with it. But when the infraction doesn’t “seem like them,” or in other words, is an anomaly in their behavior, then at the least, let the infraction go. And the most, help them understand how their behavior was wrong and is being perceived.

Your discernment will allow a choice between rushing in without regard to answers for the humanizing question and letting them off the hook altogether.

If it demands a conversation, then at the appropriate time, connect with the person. Show concern for them. But also show concern for the project or person affected by their “infraction.” You could lead with something like, “In that meeting today you didn’t seem to be yourself, and I want to understand if there’s something going on…”

Rarely, if ever, do we know all the stressors in one’s life. So when possible, slow down and ask the humanizing question before trying to solve what could be a small symptom of a much larger stressor.

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Swooping Leadership Warnings

I’ve done it and it’s been done to me. Likely, you’ve done it and you’ve been on the receiving end.

Swooping Leadership: With little background, context, or subject matter expertise, swooping in from a higher level leadership position to someone else’s work or “weeds,” and even while uninformed, directing work and making decisions.

Now, I thought I had coined a phrase and definition, but after writing my first draft, I Googled “my phrase” and discovered I’m late to the party. But at least I’m bested by a superior leader and writer, Ken Blanchard. That said, he uses a different and likely better phrase, “Seagull Manager” to describe a similar concept. You can order the book The One Minute Manager and read his chapter and more about his concept in a website post from Modern Servant Leader. That post describes Blanchard’s Seagull Manager term as, “Individuals who manage by raising alarms based on little knowledge, provide negative feedback, then leave others to clean up the mess.”

Reading the book and article would be worthy of your time, but since I’m handling the content with a less negative meaning and context, I’ll go ahead and use my inferior phrase, swooping leadership.

Swooping leadership can happen:

  • When a leader has delegated work but then has second thoughts and just can’t let it go
  • When a leader is bored
  • When a leader can’t seem to affect change in their own assigned work
  • When a leader feels a little bit of their leadership influence can serve someone a project
  • When the nature of their leadership position may require it (such as, board members)
Reminders if you’re going to swoop
  1. Ask questions before you direct. Look, I’m sure you’re a good leader, but if you choose to swoop in, spend some time in discovery before you begin directing. If you spend four minutes in discovery on a project they’ve worked four hours, or forty hours, you’re likely going to misdirect them.
  2. Guide, don’t push. Your title may give you the freedom to push, but that doesn’t mean you should use it. If your leadership advice is solid, they’ll see you as an asset. And your advice and guidance will be well received and even desired. You have to show them you can provide a better way.
  3. Suggest from your experience, don’t demand from how you’d handle hypothetically. Your experiences can be valuable. But your experiences are likely not the exact same thing they’re dealing with. So don’t draw parallels from your history to their work when it’s not there. Don’t transpose your leadership wiring and abilities on them—they’re not you. Suggest ideas when it can serve them, but know when “your way” is really just hypothetical.
Reminders for receiving the swooping leader
  1. Respect the positional authority they have. While I hope they are also good leaders, either way, you need to respect the positional authority they’ve been given and act accordingly. And in the case of decision making boards and elders, know they’re fulfilling their responsibility. They likely have their own job, but someone has asked them to provide oversight and advice. So be accepting of their role in your work.
  2. Get clarity on your authority and boundaries. Albeit not passively aggressively, understand what authority you’ve been given to do the work (I’ve blogged on delegation phrases and pathways previously). And if the authority previously given is now being challenged by their swooping, get clarity. You could say something like, “Previously you had given me a clear pathway to research this, think through it, and make the decision I feel is best. Am I still free to do that or would you prefer I do this the way you just explained?” This makes the swooper make the choice on boundaries and authority and they’ll have to own their swooping.
  3. Be openhanded to their input. Their swooping leadership could make your work better. What if utilizing one of their suggestions would make the work for your church even 2-3% better? Wouldn’t that be worth it? Constant swooping leadership can be infuriating, but don’t miss good input because you’re annoyed.

As both a swooper and a “I got swooped,” know the difference between swooping leadership that gives credible input and swooping leadership that makes swooping changes (see what I did there?).

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Priority Filter and Consequences

It’s been 28 weeks since I’ve published a blog. Am I a slacker? Just busy? Am I working in the tyranny of the urgent? Allowing others to transpose their priorities on me? Or is this where my prioritization process lead me?

What project have you deprioritized lately? And for what reason?

What’s the “unfinished blog” on the corner of your desk? What’s the email lurking at the bottom of your inbox that requires some attention?

Daily if not hourly we’re intentionally and sometimes unintentionally making priority decisions related to work projects. So, in an effort to provide “practical takeaways for everyday church leadership” I thought I’d provide some of the filters I (try to) use. Look, things will get set aside. Their prioritization will decrease, but it’s important that there’s some intentionality to this.

4 Priority Filter Questions

  1. Related to my work, is this a must do? Litmus test: I don’t do this work, I lose my job. Or things break. Or at a minimum I keep people from doing their jobs. If these could be true, the work is a “must do” and should remain a high priority.
  2. Am I called or convicted by God to do this? You could respond “no” to question one, and yet “yes” to question two which makes it a must do. For those who follow Jesus, and for those whose work involves church leadership, your priorities may not make sense outside of a spiritual realm, yet, if we’re called to do something or convicted, then it should be our highest priority.
  3. What’s the collateral damage if this is delayed? You may determine from question one it’s not a “must do,” that things aren’t going to break because it’s not done. Yet, a thoughtful effort of considering what will happen if it’s delayed. There’s likely some consequence, but how big is what takes measuring. As a leader one of our jobs is to make value judgments. In leadership, your priorities create or bog down others priorities pathways. Probably once a week I will ask someone I work with, “if X doesn’t happen, what’s the collateral damage to you or your team?”
  4. Is this really still important to me? My wiring is such that I like to finish things. If I set a goal, I really want to complete it. Yet things change. And what was important to me six months ago when I was planning my work goals may no longer be important (to me or my church). You’ve got to give yourself freedom to abandon goals when in light of current circumstances they no longer merit your highest attention. What’s one thing you’re plodding away on that really made sense even two months ago, but now you should really just “cut bait” and move to the next priority?

Consequences of Unintentional Prioritization

  • You’ll work really hard, but not move the needle – you’ll fill up your work with non-strategic work.
  • You’ll be the poster child for being the “tyranny of the urgent guy/gal.” You’ll move from project to project and only do what you “feel” up to (or even worse, what someone else feels for you).
  • You’ll do others’ bidding but not what you’re uniquely equipped to do (or even compensated to do).

Whether you wrestle down your projects, let them slide, and jettison them, be thoughtful about how you make those decisions

p.s. for those who care…Regarding my blogging and its prioritization…weekly blogging didn’t remain a priority when I reviewed questions 1-3 above. I knew ministry work at Brentwood Baptist was not going to be halted because I stopped writing. I didn’t feel like I was ignoring a calling or conviction from God. And no one’s work lives were messed up because they don’t get a weekly Dodridge download. But question four, yes, it was important to me. It just wasn’t as important as other things at the time. But now, I’m raising its priority again, and I hope from time to time, reading the blog lands somewhere on your weekly priority list.

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