This week, something I was responsible for did not go well. I won’t go into details, but I found it difficult and stressful.
Like everyone, I want to be involved in work and activities which go well and to be associated with things which are effective and successful. But of course, it is when things don’t go well that often you learn the most.
I have found that when something that I am responsible for goes wrong, I have a menu of possible responses, all of which I have used at different points.
Denial. What’s the problem, no one really noticed and it’s no big deal
Avoidance. I don’t want to talk about it, there is no point in raking over it all
Self-justification. I am working so hard and doing all I can, there was nothing more I could have done
Defensive. I’d like to see others try and do what I do
Passive aggression. If we are going to make a big deal of this then there are plenty of other things that need raising
Blame others. The real problem lies with…
Blame ‘the system’. It’s actually no one’s fault, it’s a wider, structural issue
Catastrophising. It’s all hopeless, what’s the point of anyone doing anything?
Beating ourselves up. I guess I am just terrible at my job. Everyone thinks I am useless.
Spiritualising. I guess God just was not in it
Often, these responses are just ways of deflecting uncomfortable truths.
We find failure hard to engage with and want to avoid the pain it causes. Humans have highly developed tendencies to ‘fight or flight’ when faced with anything we consider a possible threat.
However, this is where we need others. Good colleagues, co-volunteers and a positive team culture can help us avoid these deflective tendencies and engage with reality.
This is why the health of relationships in any workplace, church or club should never be judged by the avoidance of hard discussions but rather how well difficulties are dealt with. How honest are people are about the real issues? How much truth is really shared?
It is when things go wrong that we most need grace and truth.
It’s quite easy to dish out a form of ‘cheap grace’ to others or ourselves and say there was no real problem and things will be fine. But often, there are real issues that need dealing with. Peace-lovers and people-pleasers often like to provide a comfort which does little to resolve or improve a situation.
It’s also easy to tell the truth to everyone apart from the person who really needs to know. When something goes wrong, its easy to share an informal post-mortem chatting with colleagues, but we often struggle to name the real issues in front of the people responsible.
These tendencies are what ultimately lead to poor performance and terrible conduct not being addressed, safeguarding risks being ignored, scandals and businesses and organisations collapsing overnight.
The real challenge
The real challenge is blending grace and truth. To affirm the good in people’s work and name the bad. Most people want to do the right thing and do it well, but of course things often go wrong. Sometimes, this is due to weakness, sometimes negligence and sometimes, our own deliberate fault. This is the reality we need to face.
So this week, I was grateful that the person I am accountable to was willing and able to talk through the situation with me. They did not rip me apart but neither did they let me off the hook. They reflected on what they saw and gave me precise feedback. It was real, honest and truthful. And, most importantly, it will help me do things better going forward.
Loved and broken
It can be comforting to rely on denial, self-justification and avoidance, but it stores up problems that one day will come back to haunt. Embracing the truth is hard, but it’s the road to health. Eventually, reality is liberating.
It is helpful to re-consider the meaning of humility. It is not modesty or denying what we are genuinely good at. It is remembering our reality as loved but broken people. As C.S. Lewis said:
‘Humility is not thinking less of yourself. It is thinking of yourself less.’