Should I Stay or Should I Go? / Tough Choices in a Tough Workplace
You may have heard sayings like “People don’t leave bad companies, they leave bad managers,” or “People join organizations, but they leave bosses,” or even “People join because of great vision, but they leave because of poor leadership.”
Those phrases may not be bible verses, but they ring just as true in the minds of countless employees everywhere including, unfortunately, Christian organizations. In fact about 75% of employees do leave their jobs because of their bosses, not because of the job itself, according to a Gallup study a few years ago.
And when they leave Christian organizations, we usually hear remarks like “I still love that ministry, but…”
Years ago my wife and I moved cross country to join one of the few Christian radio stations in the nation playing CCM at that time. I was the new Program Director/Morning show host. It was also my first shot as a mid-level manager leading a small team of believers who each had a big heart for the mission of this station playing CCM. My boss was the General Manager, an elderly gentleman. We enjoyed a mutually respectful relationship for the first several years. But there came a time when something shifted. I began to feel like I had a target on my back. After years of success together, it now felt as if I could do nothing right in his eyes. Over time the burden I endured grew worse and I could tell my team’s performance was being negatively affected by it. As a young leader I was at a loss as to what to do. I’d lay awake nights with anxious thoughts and a sickening feeling in my stomach, telling my wife, “The boss was brutal again today and it affected everyone. I still believe this is God’s ministry, but why is He allowing this to continue?”
Fast forward years later, I have had the opportunity as both an executive leader and a consultant to observe workplaces in radio stations and other nonprofit ministries. Toxic workplaces exist even in well-known, household-name ministries, and it pains me to say that. The good news is everyone on staff can play a role that contributes to a healthy workplace culture. The bad news is that the overall condition of workplace health rises or falls on leadership and primarily with the President/CEO. Like a human thermostat in the building, whatever degree the top person is intentional about setting, or ignoring, will largely determine the atmosphere.
When a co-worker is the source of a bad workplace, depending on the issue, a fellow staff person being affected could approach them in the spirit of Matt 18, or it can be reasonable for them to expect that co-worker’s supervisor to address the issue. If they know its being addressed, I have found most people will be satisfied to give things a reasonable amount of time to be resolved. But the longer the problem persists, the focus of staff frustration begins to shift away from the bad co-worker and onto that supervisor responsible to fix the problem. Staff may wonder, “how much longer is he going to let this continue?” If they respect higher leadership in the organization, at least they can have hope that the “higher ups” will not let things get too far. But if the issue does persist longer, it can then begin to reflect poorly on the entire organization because the focus of frustration now shifts again to the top person with the hope they will “do something.”
But what if the top leader is the problem? A CEO can be the primary cause of a toxic workplace. When that happens it may not necessarily be coming from ill intent. Sometimes the top leader has a negative impact on the organization because they simply lack competency for the job, or their work style rubs people the wrong way. For example this person may come across somewhat callous if they have a hard time being empathetic or kind. Or they may choose to be inflexible at times thinking this demonstrates strength, but instead others perceive them as being too rigid. Because the top person’s words and actions create ripple effects, their work style or lack of competency can hinder the health of an entire workplace. And if this person also lacks self-awareness to realize the affect they have on others, that complicates things for everyone else. It can feel hopeless when no one on staff feels they can approach this leader to help point this out to them.
Or there may be ill intent. The President/CEO may have selfish motives resulting from pride and a sense of entitlement from their position. When the person who is expected to model the core values and protect the culture begins to instead violate the values and taint the culture, things can deteriorate very quickly, and the deterioration can be very palpable in the building; work pace slows down, money gets tight, and people get hurt…deeply. The one who was to be the most-trusted person in the ministry, the one who is supposed to “do good to those who deserve it when it is in your power to act” (Prov 3:27), is now the primary cause of toxicity and fear among staff. It is damaging, it is hurtful and it is wrong.
When workplaces go bad, what is a staff person to do? What is their recourse? Are the only choices ‘fight or flight?’ Risk being fired by taking a stand or even going around the boss to their boss, or just resign yourself to resign your position? It reminds me of the song title by The Clash “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” I know for some it can get so oppressive that out of desperation they start imagining themselves like the movie character Howard Beale in Network, run home, throw open a window and scream at the top of their lungs, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take this anymore!”
It is a tough place to be. Not everyone is in a financial position to submit their two week notice because things went awry. There are financial obligations to consider. If your spouse has been supportive through this, this affects them too. The children need new shoes. You went there because you believed in the mission, and now the boss is the reason you want to leave! Those haunting words, “People join because of great vision, but they leave because of poor leadership.”
There are ways out of this or through this for everyone involved (but it may take a 2nd article to get there). Here are some considerations I hope are helpful:
Assuming you are a follower of Jesus working in a “Christian ministry” and you are not the supervisor, start with prayer and remain hopeful. If you remember that elderly General Manager I referenced earlier, he changed for the better. If I ever knew why, I don’t remember now. But I do know my wife and I were praying. Next, remember that Employee Handbook from HR that everyone signed and never looked at again? Go look at it and do your best to follow the process. If the process is based on biblical principles and best practices, then trust the process, for now. When I served at one ministry for 22 years it wasn’t because everything was perfect. It was because there were processes there to help, people can mature and change for the better, and sometimes problems resolve themselves.
If you are a leader in a ministry, you can follow that advice too if you are the one offended. But if you are the offender and you lack the self-awareness to know that, have the humility to give your staff permission to call you on stuff. Your staff doesn’t expect you to be perfect. But if they all signed onto a mission and a set of core values, then that is what they should expect from one another regardless of position. So what would that look like? Here’s one sign of a healthy culture – a supervisor has the self-confidence to tell staff, “We’re all equal at the foot of the cross, in a court of law, and in following our core values. I already have a boss to hold me accountable for my job description. But if you ever see me violate a core value, you have every right to confront me about it.” And if you continue to lead with humility, then hopefully staff will believe they have permission to approach you on it. But you have to make the first move. By doing so, you can begin to create a sense of honesty and transparency in the workplace, and that will help make a lot of other things go well.
Dusty Rhodes consults of Christian organizations in leadership and fundraising. He has served Christian media as Program Director, General Manager, Chief Operating Office, Chief Development Officer and Senior Vice President. Reach him at [email protected]
 Turning Around Employee Turnover, Robison J., Gallup 2008.