Company Culture

What Leaders Can Learn From Black Churches About Keeping Team Members Engaged

What Leaders Can Learn From Black Churches About Keeping Team Members Engaged
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I grew up attending all-black, Baptist churches. But, then one Sunday, I found myself visiting a nearly all-white Presbyterian church in downtown Berkeley. It was a large congregation, with hundreds in attendance and a woman minister I greatly enjoyed. But it was so quiet in there.

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I couldn't help comparing this church with the rollicking, regular church experiences of my youth. When prayer ended, I even said “amen!” out loud. Well, heads turned. Many heads turned.

After church, a number of people spotted me as a visitor and stopped by to shake my hand, say hello and deliver various other warm welcomes. I mentioned my voluble amen-faux-pas to one woman and she joked, “I know! It’s so quiet in here that my kids call us ‘the frozen chosen.’”

This incident came to mind a few weeks ago, when I was at a marketing-industry leadership roundtable. There were maybe 15 of us in the room, all CMO types, mostly from Fortune 50 companies. And people were sharing how hard they were finding it to get employees to engage with company leaders and one other. They wanted those employees to share their thoughts, questions, ideas, concerns, successes and failures with the rest of the company.

One executive described how afraid employees seemed even to speak up, for fear of being criticized, singled out or shamed. Several others said they had the same issue. Then people started trading notes about the various internal social media tools they used, like Yammer and Slack, that offer spaces for internal conversations.

What I thought but didn’t say that day is that the problem these teams have is not technological; it's cultural. If people are afraid, they may have reason to be. If people don’t share the lessons they've learned, for fear of being singled out as having failed, chances are good that, well, they’ve seen someone else singled out for having failed.

And apparently this cultural problem is pervasive.

I mentioned it to a close friend who has worked for a number of very large companies. And she said, “Oh, yeah, you don’t speak up or challenge leadership. I did that on my first job and was pulled aside and told that that was a CLM.”

“A what?” I asked.

“A career limiting move,” she answered.

Employees who are so repressed that they think asking a question of their manager is a CLM are the business world's version of “frozen chosen.” They're "chosen" because they brought some kind of valuable knowledge, or expertise to the company in the first place. But now they're "frozen" because, like the parishioners at that Berkeley church, they're part of an organization where simply saying something, asking a question, pushing back on a planned initiative, turns heads. Raises alarm. Has its own acronym: CLM.

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That's cultural. Black churches have their own issues, to be sure. But one thing many of them do well is foster a culture of conversation. Here’s an anthropological experiment for you: If you’ve never attended a black church, take two hours this Sunday and do so. You’ll learn, quickly, that a black church service is not a spectator sport. Black pastors are notorious for engaging their audiences in a two-way conversation. They look for, expect and sometimes flat out demand audience participation from the first note of the first song to the closing benediction.

It’s not for nothing that the saying “Can I get an amen?” has penetrated the larger lexicon.

But it’s not just an “amen” most black church pastors want these days. Things I have actually heard these pastors ask their audiences to do include: repeat after them, punch (the parishioners') neighbors, tell their neighbors how great they look today, touch their foreheads, do a two-step, do the Electric Slide, rap along to an old Slick Rick song. 

Then there was the pastor who demanded that the congregation "fill in the blanks" of a not-so-old song by a guy the minister described as the “dysfunctional poet savant Lil’ Wayne.” Not to be outdone, my current pastor (who is white, by the way, but pastors a very diverse congregation) recently did a cooking demo onstage and had a few of the thousand people in the sanctuary come up to get their piece of the hero sandwich he’d constructed.

Good pastors -- and great leaders -- foster conversation because conversation fosters engagement. And engagement fosters excellence, joy, creative problem-solving and innovation in our work.

But, here’s the rub: I’ll bet that, if you asked them, the executives in the room at that roundtable would say they do "everything" they can to encourage conversation. So the lesson is that when an organization's culture already has a chilling effect, you can’t get people to engage in an ongoing, companywide culture of conversation just by telling them to do so.

Companies that understand how mission-critical conversation is to the health of their teams must first normalize and enculturate conversation, and do it deeply with their own actions. Here are two ways to accomplish that:

1. Normalize real talk.

You could have put the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. himself in that Presbyterian church that one day I described. And maybe his dynamic presence would have turned the pin-drop hush into a momentary mutter, at most. Because feedback was simply not a cultural norm at that church.

Normalizing real, frank, two-way conversations takes intentional effort, modeling and the creation of spaces that prove, over time, to be safe harbors for free expression - and I mean safe occupationally and emotionally.

What's important here is that, as leader, you must go first. And second. And fifth, if need be. Leaders must be the first to call out their own challenges, to conduct public post-mortems and to review the lessons they’ve learned.

Those lessons can't be fake ones, either. Leaders should talk about real failures or projects that didn't quite go as planned. They should then work through what they might do differently in the future. When you put an idea out there, ask for pushback -- literally invite people to show you where you’re missing something or thinking about it wrong.

In other words, ask people to trouble-shoot. Make -- then honor -- the rule that the best idea wins, no matter whose idea it is. Let employees witness when the project manager’s idea gets roadmapped instead of the CEO's. When employees formerly viewed as being frozen begin to thaw and share their thinking or ideas, you as leader should expressly reward that sharing and thinking, even when you have to course-correct the idea someone's proposed, to get it close to something actionable.

2. Consistently place a high value on free thinking, the questioning of authority, pushback and post-mortems.

Once people share their thinking, consistently show them that you honor their effort and their willingess to take the risk of being vulnerable and expressing themselves. Allow employees' free thinking and concepts to infiltrate your company’s language, culture, product roadmap and editorial calendar. Learn to ask more beautiful questions, in response to employees’ thoughts and ideas.

Then do it all over again. Regularly.

“Can I get an amen?” is anything but a rhetorical question at many a black church; it’s a cultural reality. If your business depends on the engagement, creativity and free thinking of your teams, you must do your part to move the creation of a culture of conversation from abstract ideal to cultural reality.

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