L. Roger Owens: The better way to 360-degree feedback

Leaders of all stripes need feedback -- the good, the bad and the ugly. But such honesty is possible only in the context of covenant, says a professor of leadership and ministry.

My wife didn’t make her suggestion because she’d just read the latest book on 360-degree feedback. She did it because she thought it would be a fun way to honor me on my birthday a few years ago.

The five of us -- Ginger and I and our three children -- were eating cake after they had sung “Happy Birthday” to me, when she had an idea: “Let’s go around the table and tell Dad what we love about him.”

“You’re the best dad in the whole world!” exclaimed Simeon, our oldest, always game for this kind of activity.

Not a bad start , I thought -- until Silas, the younger brother, and the less emotive, more strictly rational of the two, chimed in:

“Well … we don’t know all the dads in China.”

Silas -- our logician and truth teller.

I don’t remember what Ginger or our then-toddler daughter said. I just remember that when this round was over, Simeon piped up again: “Now let’s tell Dad what we don’t like about him!”

“Who wants more ice cream?” I said, putting an end to this.

Honest feedback is good. But there’s a time, a place, a way. This was none of those.

Leaders of all stripes -- parents, pastors, principals -- need feedback; we need to hear the good, the bad and the ugly. And in many institutional cultures, thin skin, fear of retribution or the failure of a leader to ask can prevent honest feedback.

One way many organizations skirt these impediments is through the anonymous survey. Our anonymity guaranteed, we are able to say what we really think about our leaders. And if our leaders get their feelings hurt, that’s not our problem.

This might be necessary in large institutions when everyone’s feedback is needed. But on smaller leadership teams? Or church staffs? Must everyone stay anonymous, or is there a better way?

When I pray through the Psalms, I am struck by the willingness of Israel and God to be utterly forthright with one another. Something about their relationship makes this possible, even demands it.

“Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord? Awake, do not cast us off forever!” Israel says to a God who seems to be on sabbatical ( Psalm 44:23).

God is honest, too: “Hear, O my people, and I will speak, O Israel, I will testify against you” ( Psalm 50:7).

In other words: “Now let’s tell each other what we don’t like about one another.” Israel and God found a way.

They had what too many of our teams and staffs lack: a covenant. They belonged to one another, and knew it; they understood the terms of their relationship. Within the context of covenant, both lavish praise and brutal honesty had a home.

Our church staff learned this the hard way when conflict erupted. We were annoyed with each other, even angry. We talked about one another, not to one another.

“Look, I want you to tell me when I’m not doing as well as I could, because I want to improve,” I once said to everyone on the staff.

But on the inside, I knew my bravado was a lie. I didn’t want a knock on my office door from someone ready to confront me with my weaknesses, any more than the rest of the staff did. We were at an impasse.

Then, with the help of a wise consultant, we discovered what we were missing: a covenant. We had little shared sense of who we were as a team, how we should work together, what we owed one another, what common project bound us together. Without this shared framework, how could we feel safe naming the good, the bad and the ugly? Indeed, why would we want to?

So on a retreat, we wrote a covenant together, and at every subsequent staff meeting we read a portion of the covenant and asked, “How are we doing?” In the covenant we explicitly said that we strive for excellence in ministry, that we desire to share a common vision and that we need to ask for and offer feedback, “in private when appropriate.”

The covenant acknowledged not only the need for honest feedback but also the need to give feedback at appropriate times and places and in appropriate ways.

With this framework in place, we no longer had to resort to the promise of anonymity or water-cooler conversations to learn the truth. Neither did we fear that feedback would be offered in ways that would wound the very relationships so central to working toward a shared vision.

In my family now, it’s a joke -- at every birthday we re-enact that original feedback session. We can laugh because we know that this isn’t the way honesty needs to work in our family. But we also can laugh because we know that since we belong to one another, not only through our bloodlines but also through our baptisms, we can, at the appropriate times and places, and in appropriate ways, speak the truth to one another -- all 360 degrees of it.