Archive for August, 2012

August 1, 2012

Leadership & Evil

A wise king winnows the wicked and drives the threshing wheel over them – Proverbs 20:26

“OUCH!”, you might say.  “That’s gonna leave a mark!” These are harsh words when we first look at them but on closer examination we may find they are softer. In fact, they can actually teach us something surprising about leadership.

Proverbs is talking about confronting evil in others. While we often tend to think of evil as a horrible plot or a vindictive nature in the hearts of horrific people, evil is more complicated than that. None of us are all bad but none of us are all good either. Sin and evil are an intrinsic part of the human condition no one can change.

Unfortunately, our innate sinfulness comes out in the workplace sometimes. Even in Biblical times, people had problems with this. Paul had to confront Peter about withdrawing from the Gentiles to save face with Jewish Christians (Galatians 2:11-21) and God gently confronted Elijah for his loss of perspective and living by anxiety (1 Kings 19). Nehemiah had to confront the nobles and rulers who were causing their brother Israelites to be sold back into slavery (Nehemiah 5). We hope that when we confront another person, they will take it in and do some work on their character.

What Solomon is saying in the first part of Proverbs 20:26 is that a wise leader attempts to separate the evil from the person. He suggests “winnowing”–a gentle technique involving throwing the grain and chaff up the air so that the chaff is carried away in the wind and the grain falls back to the threshing floor. This probably does not mean throwing your staff up in the air and hoping their evil is carried away by the wind while letting them go “THUMP” on the floor. On the other hand, it may mean evaluating with them, one-to-one,  why they are having trouble when they’re refusing to do a task.

Several years ago, while supervising on an inpatient unit, I worked with an intern who came up with excuse after excuse as to why he could not do the required video tape of a session with any one of his patients. I did some “winnowing” by asking him what he felt and explored his fears and attitudes about being videotaped. It was hard for him but he was able to be honest and became willing to be taped.

This verse from Proverbs can also apply to problems with clientele or people outside your organization. A number of times I have had to winnow people who insisted that I just turn over confidential records. For instance, if the estranged parent of a minor insists on seeing their child’s therapy notes, I try to evaluate the potential benefits and liabilities involved for the patient before simply turning over the records. Sometimes, uninvolved third parties such as pseudo-uncles or parents of adult children have insisted on seeing my records. While this has rarely happened, I have had to get even tougher and involve authorities to “drive the threshing wheel over them.”

Now the threshing wheel sounds a bit more ominous. Threshing wheels separate the wheat from the straw or chaff in a more thorough way. The farmer sits on a cart with stone or heavy wooden wheels that bear down on the straw and grain, breaking off the grain and letting it sink below the straw or chaff. This is needed if the grain is dry and the husk has adhered to the grain.

A heavy stone wheel rolling over your staff will probably get CalOHSA or your local OSHA on your front doorstep in a hurry. But seriously, there are times when harder limits must be set to ensure a healthy working environment. It may be important to bear down harder when winnowing has not worked.

One of our pastors was sent by our church education board to take a lay leader to task. This woman, while perhaps having good intentions, had tried to impose very controlling and rigid rules on our youth program. He winnowed her but she insisted she was right and was determined to continue creating rules that were out of touch with the community’s needs. The pastor was sent back to her and the second time he was more firm. She maintained her beliefs about what the youth needed but chose to step down rather than continuing to aggravate the church board. She eventually left the church in a huff. It is possible that if her agenda had succeeded it could have ruined the youth program and harmed the church.

We must also understand the difference between hurting and harming an employee. Hurting causes transitory pain while harming causes long-lasting, possibly irreparable damage. This can be seen in the dynamic between a manager and employee: if an employee shows up half an hour late to their shift, their manager would send them home because, by that point, an alternate would have already been called in. While the employee might feel harmed by this action, they have only been hurt. They have learned a valuable lesson: show up for your shift on time and the pain is transitory–they have lost only one shift. Conversely, if a manager just simply tells an employee they are too obese for the job, this is harming the employee. There is no positive lesson to be learned and the employee may gain more fuel for their poor body-image.

Employee discipline is not harming the person if done correctly. It may sting and hurt from their immediate point of view. But even if they eventually leave, they can learn an important lesson and they may avoid actually harming their future and their career on down the road. It is important to address the problem in kindness and truth at first (i.e. mixing honesty with grace) so you can win your point without losing the person. And then, if corrections are not followed, increasing truth or limits as needed will do much to help your organization run smoothly. “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” – Hebrews 12:11.

Seeing the bad or problems in your staff or employees does not entitle you to yell, shame, blame and or avoid them. Listening, asking probing questions, offering your point of view, discerning inconsistencies and holding your staff to certain standards will help a lot in winnowing them. “Correct a wise man and will love you” – Proverbs 9:8b