Truth-Telling in Passive-Aggressive Organizations

Truth-Telling in Passive-Aggressive Organizations

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Published:
February 12, 2016

No one who knows me would doubt I speak my mind. I've been honored for speaking up, criticized for doing so and attacked for doing so, often for saying the same thing. And so it goes. I am an attorney and this comes with my vocation. But I don't claim a license or even a calling in this regard, except for the basic virtue of speaking the truth when called upon to do so.

Organizations inherently become self-protective in the name of maintaining authority. The respected Christian author Eugene Peterson writes, "Because leadership is necessarily an exercise of authority, it easily shifts into an exercise of power. But the minute it does that, it begins to inflict damage on both the leader and the led" (The Message, Introduction to 2 Corinthians).

Organizational power and truth-telling uneasily co-exist. Rather than using reason and persuasion, the powerful are tempted to manipulate and coerce uniformity of opinion and conformity of conduct as a means of achieving the greater good of unity through appearance rather than by the Spirit.

When organizational leadership yields to the temptation of power, passive acceptance of leadership dictates becomes the desired substitute for a thoughtful assertion of conscience that says "We must obey God rather than any human authority" (Acts 5:29). When passivity is expected and those who "go along to get along" are rewarded, those who speak up for the truth are going to suffer as sure as night follows day.

Recently, I told a group of mid-level managers of a Christian institutional client, "The employees of this organization who are not passive-aggressive will always pay a price."

"Why do you say this?" they asked me.

"My experience," I replied. "There is a heavy reliance on committees here. This means difficult decisions are only made in crisis. The rest of the time people hide behind the bland anonymity of 'The committee voted . . .', or 'The committee tabled . . .', or 'This will have to go to committee . . .’.  It's hard for those not on the committee to know what the members think or how they voted. You can't identify who stands for or against what or whom.

"Those who speak up and say 'the emperor has no clothes, or at least is underdressed' are labeled as 'mean', 'judgmental', 'subversive', 'disruptive', and  'lacking in compassion' regardless of what they may be saying. The prevailing meme of conformity masquerades as 'teamwork'. Because this is a Christian organization, 'niceness' is substituted for transparency by conflict-aversive administrators who, in God's observation to the prophet Jeremiah, are 'treating the wound of my people carelessly, saying, 'Peace, peace,' when there is no peace' (Jer 8:11).

"The pressure to say nothing critical works against accountability. That's why employee evaluations are almost always skewed up to  '4s' and '5s' on a five point scale, rewarding mediocrity and diminishing incentive for improvement. It's hard to provide a legal defense for personnel decisions about an employee with an alleged pattern of under-performance and misbehaving after you open the personnel file and the evaluators have given high ratings without exception. Inevitably, the supervisors say they wanted to be compassionate, and didn't want to be 'negative.' But integrity in an organization requires honesty regarding its personnel, its processes and its services.

"The employees who suffer disruption and stress from the poor performance or misconduct of co-workers deserve compassion for their plight. Overlooking conduct that is contrary to mission and values and not dealing with those engaging in that conduct is to allow those who are misbehaving to exercise a tacit veto over what makes for organizational peace and progress.

"Truthful evaluations and effective discipline are preventive organizational maintenance. Seeking to achieve unity by ignoring unpleasant truths or repressing those who bring them up will eventually rot out the structure from the inside. The 'unity' so achieved is false, unsafe and demoralizing. Our allegiance to Christ must inspire best practices, and not excuse the failure to achieve them.

"The Apostle Paul admonished the Ephesian believers that growth in Christian community required 'speaking the truth in love' (Eph 4:15). Speaking the truth without love can be brutal, although it is no less the truth. Speaking love at the expense of truth is a white-wash. Love that is dishonest cannot be love because, as Paul told the Corinthians, 'Love . . . rejoices in the truth'" (1 Cor 13:6).

"How do we change the passive-aggressive culture?" one of the managers asked me.

"We must start with prayer and thought," I replied. "Prayer for the Lord to give us discernment and the courage of conviction and thought about what we want to accomplish and how we want to accomplish it. Too often prayer is the last rite we pronounce over a lost cause, rather than the initiation of our mission. The theologian Karl Barth said, 'To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.'

"We need to establish clear expectations both for results and conduct and a fair, consistent process to assess performance of those expectations. Then we must train the workforce with regards to what it takes to achieve the desired performance. Everyone in the organization deserves to know in advance the expected goals and methods for them, and the standards by which performance and conduct will be evaluated.

"Finally, we cannot and must not flinch away from application of virtue in the pursuit of organizational goals, the methods for achieving them, and the truthful evaluation of performance. We must not hesitate to speak out for accountability. Christian organizations lose their witness when they do not practice what they preach and are contented with mediocrity and turn a blind eye to sin.

"This is not complicated. The need is great, the solutions are obvious, but do we have the will to implement and follow through? Do you and I have the fire in our bellies to do what is right? Each of us has to answer that question? We can't look to someone else to take care of these things for us. Each of us needs to own our own part in this.

"It is a denial of our calling and an abdication of leadership to think, 'Oh, someone else will deal with this.' We need to keep our eyes on Jesus and our hearts attuned to what he wants. Solomon said:

Let your eyes look directly forward,
     and your gaze be straight
            before you.
Keep straight the path of your feet,
     and all your ways will be sure.
Do not swerve to the right or to the left;
      turn your foot away from evil.
        (Pr 4:25-27)

I spoke from experience with scars in making those comments. I have a personality oriented to achievement and a propensity for putting goals ahead of people. It is a constant struggle for me to maintain a balance between achieving goals and being merciful to those who fall short. When I get self-righteous and fired-up about these things, I've learned to pray the prayer of David, "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I" because I need my sense of proportion restored as to God's significance and my insignificance.

There are scholars who say that Paul could never pass up making his point even if it meant an argument and that was his thorn in the flesh. I have no idea if that is true, but I understand why he would say, "Therefore . . .  a thorn was given me from Satan, to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness'" (2 Cor 12:7b-9).

Executives, and lawyers for that matter, want to look like they are in charge and taking care of business. Consultants swarm and books abound with titles like "Strength Finders." There is always an enticement to lean upon and improve one's leadership strengths. Isn't that what a leader is supposed to do?

But here is the problem. A strength unsubmitted to the Lord is always our greatest weakness. That goes for someone like me with a keen sense of justice, but who can be less than merciful in upholding principle. It also goes for leaders with gifts for nurture and conciliation who claim those gifts exempt them from calling out wrong for what it is. It goes for those given authority who seek to maintain their positions and images by appeasement rather than obeying God in speaking the truth with love and holding others accountable. Without the guidance of the Holy Spirit, deployment of these "strengths," leave an organization and its people weak and confused.

Like Isaiah, "I am lost for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips" (Isa 6:5). Struggling with what to do with all the brokenness and mixed motives, I've learned love means to want the best for another. I've learned holding back on the truth likely means you are protecting self at the expense of another and denying them the freedom of responsive choice integral to love.

My experience also makes me distrustful of leaders who refuse to investigate or respond to misconduct because they want to be "redemptive." Redemption, whether forensic or spiritual, follows investigation and judgment. Redemption is an application of mercy to the consequences of wrongdoing. Turning a blind eye to the truth and refusing to recognize that wrongdoing has occurred is denial, not redemption, and as such it  promotes a corrupt order and a false peace. 

No human ever arrives at the right balance of truth and love. But we don't have to agonize over that balance. We need to "know and believe the love that God has for us" and operate out of that foundational truth (1 John 4:16). We hedge on the truth when we fear its consequences. People who know they are loved by their Creator, Savior and Lord, can handle and tell the truth with confidence. What does this tell us?

"The Lord declares . . . I will honor those who honor me" (1 Sam 2:30). From Enoch to Noah to Abraham to Moses to Deborah to Samuel to David to Elijah to Daniel to John the Baptist to Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Peter to Paul to the Reformers and on, men and women who made relationship with God their priority, loved their people and told the truth have lead God's people forward.

The leaders who sought to lead God's work by their own power and for their own purposes, or who have let legalistic zeal rather than mercy be their guide, or who have allowed their fear of disapproval and unpopularity to overrule doing the right thing have left legacies of arrogance and cowardice that serve as warnings to us. Jesus told us what to do when facing the temptations of leadership: "It is written, 'Worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve'" (Luke 4:8, quoting Deut 6:13).

These are simple and obvious truths, but such is the power of human pride that they are forgotten in every generation. I am blessed to serve with men and women who remember those truths and who encourage me to pursue them with love and accountability. Their witness strengthens my faith.
 

 

Kent Hansen is a business and healthcare attorney from Corona, California. This essay first appeared in his weekly email devotional, “A Word of Grace for Your Monday.” Kent’s devotionals can be read on the C.S. Lewis Foundation blog at www.cslewis.org.

Image Credit: FreeImages.com / Julia Freeman-Woolpert

 

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