Weekly Thoughts

Collective rebuilding of life-giving structures

By Stanley Arumugam

City walls helped create a shared identity amongst a people. They provided security – a safe environment to work together productively. But some of the churches and NGOs I work with sadly remind me of Jerusalem’s city walls in the time of Nehemiah. The organisation’s walls are broken down by internal conflict, mistrust and fear. People are watching their backs, creating an inefficient and even toxic culture.

What can we learn from Nehemiah 3:1-12 about the way forward?

First, it was a collective effort. Everyone played a part in rebuilding the walls: priests, noblemen and perfumers… There is even a startling mention of a father rebuilding his part of the wall with his daughters. We may have to work in unexpected, counter-cultural ways.

It takes an inspiring leader to galvanise such a collective effort. But it also takes a wise leader to ensure that these new walls really are different. If we do not deal with the underlying issues, the new structures will perpetuate the same fears, doubts and insecurities. Walls easily become prisons.

Yet if we get to grips with the psychological and spiritual elements of the human condition in our organisations, this raises the possibility to create different structures that encourage freedom, energy and life.

  • What sort of structures do we work within?
  • How can we make our organisations more healthy, and life-giving?

Looking to see what God is doing

We hope you have had a restorative and life-giving last couple of months, while Space for Grace has been on holiday!

I’ve been noticing recently how many of my prayers seem to start with the words “Help”. I’m usually praying for God to sort out difficult human situations. But this week I’ve been thinking about that amazing story in 2 Kings 6, where Elisha’s servant wakes up to find them surrounded by a ‘strong force of horses and chariots’ sent by the King of Aram to capture them. Not surprisingly, he panics. I assume that Elisha will then pray for God to rescue them. But instead he simply prays for his servant “Open his eyes, Lord, so that he may see”. Elisha already sees. God reveals to the servant the hills full of a much greater force of horses and chariots of fire.

As a leader, Elisha responded to his servant’s fear by praying for him to see the situation from God’s perspective. There is a spiritual element in the battles we face and God is involved and active. In difficult times at work, it may not be possible to give staff certainty about what exactly is going to happen, but we can be certain that God is present in the midst of it all. When facing a seemingly impossible challenge we first need to look intentionally and prayerfully to see what God is doing.

  • What can I take from Elisha’s example into my week ahead?
  • What difficult situations can I ask God to open my eyes and reveal what He is doing?

Creating some space to untangle my identity

I get so frustrated with how easily my identity gets tangled up in my work. I should know better, after all I teach this to others. Yet I still find myself inadvertently looking for my sense of significance from my job. I have to work hard to discipline my thoughts, to remind myself that my sense of who I am is based on being a child of God – something that is an underserved gift, not something I have earned.

I find it helpful to regularly re-read Henri Nouwen’s little book ‘In the Name of Jesus’ which reflects powerfully on the temptations of Jesus and what they teach us about Christian leadership.

I also find it helpful to create some space to explore prayerfully my real motivations for doing things. It helps me re-align what I’m doing with my sense of God’s calling. It sometimes means I have to exit as gracefully as I can from responsibilities that are no longer mine to carry (and perhaps never were!)

Why not take some time over the next couple of months (as Space for Grace takes its own annual break) to reassess, to listen to God and discern:

  • Where am I currently getting my sense of significance?
  • What are the next steps in my journey with God?
  • What do I need to let go of to make that happen?

Learning from mistakes

By Richard Davis

We would probably agree that we stand to learn more from our setbacks than from what goes well. Wow, it can be painful though!

I returned from a two year OD assignment with an NGO in Cambodia, which until the final fortnight I would have judged an almost blemish-free success. Unfortunately, in the final days one of the changes my client and I had been pursuing blew up in our faces. And yet as I look back, the writing was on the wall:

  • Some key members of staff were not consulted about a strategic change for their organisation because it was known they wanted to take it in a different direction
  • The organisation’s board took hugely varying positions from week to week and seemed increasingly desperate to get a solution
  • Even though they had been friends for twenty years and agreed on the solution they wanted, on this issue the chair and chief executive did not trust each otherAs the organisation’s consultant, I think I should have stopped providing any advice when I could not talk to the unhappy staff for fear of inflaming the situation. My problems became that I could not see their part of the picture and therefore understand the influence they were having. But I carried on, because I didn’t want my client to think I would not ‘help’ him.

    I pray that this week you and I will do good work and be able to learn from our own and others’ mistakes!

  • What was the last major mistake you made at work?
  • What did you learn from it?
  • How will you put that learning into practice this week?

Listen to the dissenters

By Stanley Arumugam

I did not feel like getting involved again with this team. Our initial session was intense, almost toxic, though we made some progress. When they requested follow-up, I was not sure. Some were obviously committed to working things out, but the other camp was resisting at every turn. In the middle of a full load of work, spending the afternoon with this team was not appealing, but I accepted, rather reluctantly.

We started with review and reflection of the journey to date, but as soon as we did our round robin, the ‘dissenting’ team member let fly with a monologue that stopped everyone in their tracks. She asked if it was useful to even address unresolved issues and what that would do for the team.

We then discussed whether the team was up for exploring these difficult issues again. It felt important to hear out the dissenter who’s perspectives usually questioned/opposed other team members. At the end of an initially awkward conversation the team agreed the need to revisit the tough, difficult issues – even though it felt like going into a painful past. How the conversation took place was really important. In a safe, guided way the team was able to surface issues that were still under the water. Things that would have been lost if we just wanted to move on.

This was only possible because we chose to listen to the dissenting voice. Despite the team’s initial desire to keep the positive momentum, avoid further anxiety and move on, the dissenting voice forced us to slow down. It turned out to be a gift as we got to grips with heartfelt issues. As a facilitator I learned a powerful lesson in holding space for a dissenting team member. It did not result in stuckness, but in significant progress.

This week:

  • Which dissenting voices do you need to listen to?
  • Where do you need to allow deep and maybe heated discussions to take place?

Discussing the undiscussable

By Tobias Nyondo

There are always undiscussable issues in any organization. There are usually ‘elephants in the room’. We shy away from naming them. We steer clear of brutal facts. It would seem disloyal to bring them up. We fear if we bring up such issues, we will be labelled a rebel and may even face reprisals.

I was asked to facilitate two meetings of over 250 leaders from my church. Rather than dodge the big issues, I believed it was vital to put them on the table – even to the point of addressing the taboo subject of succession from the founding pastor (in his presence). This was not easy. I think it only worked because I managed to:

  1. Get the top leadership on my side – If you do not get visible support from the leadership, they will be a strong resistance and render the whole task useless.
  2. Create an atmosphere of liberty – People will only open up in a ‘safe space’ when there is a spirit of freedom in the place. “I felt the leadership wanted to hear this and did not feel I would be penalized”, one excited leader commented after the meeting.
  3. Use Diplomatic Honesty – Jesus certainly did not shy away from speaking the truth. But he always did it with grace and compassion.
  4. Ask the right questions – Framing the right questions around issues that often remain undiscussed requires discernment and wisdom (and even bouncing off leaders in advance).

Some of the questions that worked those days for me were:

  • What would you do differently?
  • What are the game changers here?
  • What prohibits us from progressing forward?

This week:

  • In which work situations do we need to discuss the undiscussables?
  • What questions might energise change in these situations?

Daring to be vulnerable

By Clinton Dix

I was recently leading a session on cross-cultural leadership with 25 mission agency staff from Brazil. As I spoke about the potential pitfalls and methods of preventing cultural mistakes, the chairman of the board whispered me a question, “Can I share with the group the email that you sent the board earlier this year?”

I stopped and quickly considered it. I had sent an email a while back carefully explaining our consulting requirements. It turned out that people reading my email completely misunderstood my intentions. So I agreed (slightly reluctantly). To my surprise the chairman had a copy of my email with him and proceeded to read it out, but without mentioning any names. The entire group howled with laughter that a mission leader could have sent such an email.

After the laughter died down I dared to admit: “I was the one that sent the email.” Stunned silence… I continued facilitating. From that moment on our discussions got deeper and more open.

I thought about this afterwards. Why had I dared to be vulnerable? I realised that it was only because we had worked together before and we trusted each other. What difference had it made? I also realised that after the “confession” the trust level deepened and our discussions also deepened.  Research backs up both observations:

  • Vulnerability and transparency are stronger when trust already exists.
  • Vulnerability and transparency can deepen trust.

But…what about when there is no trust, either because something has occurred to break trust, or where there is no history to establish trust?

  • Are we willing to be vulnerable, to be transparent in those situations?
  • What stories can we share with others that allows us to be vulnerable, that can create that first spark of trust?

Humble confidence

By Doreen Kwarimpa-Atim

I sometimes struggle with working with humility and confidence. I was making some suggestions to my co- facilitator as we were doing some joint planning for an event. After we finished, he asked me to reflect on my posture while making my contributions. I realised that I had done it quite hesitantly. I was trying not to be presumptuous with my thoughts, and this had affected my confidence to make a contribution in this particular work situation. It dawned on me that sometimes, because I do not want to appear over-bearing, I deny others the gifts that I have to offer.

In Matthew 5: 13 Jesus challenges us to be the salt of the world. A good meal needs just enough salt. As Christians if we are ‘too much salt’, we can ruin a situation and cause a lot of harm, while if we are ‘too little salt’, we will not make any difference. We might as well not be there. I realised that one of the ways I lose my saltiness is by holding back on what I have to contribute.

Humility involves recognising and boldly using the gifts that God has given us, in the places where he puts us. To be the right amount of salt in team situations, and as an Organisational Development practitioner, I need to work with both humility and confidence. If one overwhelms the other then I lose the beauty and power of who God has created me to be.

This week:
To take the opportunities that God is giving me, where do I need to be both confident and humble?
What do I need to strengthen or let go of so that I can be the ‘right amount of salt’?

Interceding at work

By Dorothy Grace Stewart

Intercessory prayer does not come naturally for me. My prayers are usually quite self- centered. But one time, whilst assisting
 on a job, I believe God uniquely used my intercessory prayer to contribute to his redemptive work in the life of an organization.

In preparation for a two-day intervention I began praying, fasting and trying to listen to God for what might be in store. I had a really lovely half hour walk to work and one morning the word “atrophy,” hit my mind/heart. This was a bit confusing as I have hardly ever used the word. It means wasting away through lack of use. Nevertheless, I wrote it down in my journal and carried on.

About a month later we were at the workshop. The participants were walking back into the conference room carrying some dubious drawings on flip charts. We had asked them to creatively represent what they believed to be the major obstacle to their team’s success. One person unfolded her sheet to reveal the outline of a shriveled lung. She explained that she felt like the team was “atrophying” due to an unwillingness to confront a particular issue and that unless they addressed it, this would be their demise. She dramatically and succinctly put to words a feeling that was resonating throughout the room. She drew what God had whispered to me a month prior.

I spoke with her privately immediately afterwards and showed her my journal. We both were a bit shocked by God’s co-creating with us. She asked me to pray as she felt she was being called to hold the team accountable in the following weeks. Subsequently, this team was able to move in great courage in truly inspirational ways. What extraordinary moments invade our work when we intercede for our work!

This week:
What work situations are on your heart to pray for?

The heart of change

By Rick James

We know from our own personal lives that change is fundamentally an emotional process. Any change, even the most positive, has an element of loss and letting go as well as the excitement and hope for the future. Emotions are the vital fuel for change, when things get tough. I read somewhere that 80% of change is emotional, not rational.

Yet, so often we forget this when we walk through the office door. We foolish behave as if brute logic alone was enough. Bill’s story last week from the Mothers’ Union in South Africa illustrated beautifully and powerfully how it is emotion and spirit that bring personal and organisational transformation.

As we look to contribute to positive change at work this week, what could we do to better connect with the inherently emotional and spiritual elements of change?