It’s not you, it’s us: unblurring the line between organisational and psychological problems

Image by Shameer Pk from Pixabay 

When the Director of Personnel and Member Care for my sending organisation stepped down recently, I was asked to take on her role in an interim capacity. Having been stuck by hard border closures for more than a year, my first instinct was of course. Why not try and be useful and provide some support to my organisation in this interim period? I’m neither a psychologist nor a human resource professional but both disciplines fascinate me, even more so having spent the last year researching the unique challenges for leadership in cross-cultural mission organisations. Stepping into such as role and seeing things from the other side gave me a lot of food for thought about how we think about both personnel and member care. At heart I am sociologist, driven to understand the cultures, contexts, environments in which we exist and relate. I’m also a lawyer by training and I’m realising both of those parts of my background affect how I think about the roles of people who provide care and organisational support for missionaries. 

I’ve been trying for a while to articulate a quiet discomfort that has been building in my mind, but I wasn’t able to until I listened to a fascinating conversation between Adam Grant and Merve Emre. The podcast was in response to Emre’s eloquent critique of emotional intelligence as a form of corporate control that ignores the social and political factors involved in emotional labour. It’s a fascinating topic and worthy of a much more detailed engagement than I can attempt here. But one thing that really stood out to me during the conversation was when Grant suggested we should “ban psychological responses to organisational problems”. They went on to discuss some COVID-related examples where employees struggling with the circumstances brought on by lock-downs and working from home were sent tips on coping with stress or offered mindfulness training via zoom when what they actually needed was for their boss to recognise and accommodate their reality rather than expecting they could continue to work the same load or hours while simultaneously caring for young children or supervising online schooling. 

In my experience, the lines between member care and the personnel or human resources department in many mission organisations are often either blurred or completely overlap. There is an important and necessary intersection between the two and they are both necessary for flourishing individuals and functioning organisations but I worry that we sometimes forget that they are not the same thing.

I’ve experienced my fair share of frustrations and conflicts in my ten years as a member of a mission organisation. And there were times when what I wanted, more than a compassionate ear or a quick referral to an independent counselor, was someone to actually acknowledge the organisational problems driving my situation and to attempt to find organisational solutions. 

Don’t get me wrong, member care and counselling are vitally important. There were a number of situations over the last few months where I was glad to have people and resources in our organisation that I could call on to help our members in this way. We need to be giving people the emotional tools to reframe and cope with difficult situations, to understand ourselves and our expectations, to process everything from disappointment to grief, and to work through unhealthy or divisive conflict. However, I have seen plenty of examples of member care or mental health support being suggested for people who are in situations that could actually be fixed and changed. Or where processes could be implemented that learn from those situations that might avoid others experiencing similar pain. 

Resources and people are limited and most organisations can’t fill every role they would love to have. This means that people frequently wear multiple hats and are often not trained or experienced in all those hats. There will be a flavour to how they do a role that is most strongly influenced by whatever they have the most training and experience of. Anecdotally at least there a lot more people with experience in counselling and pastoral care than there are HR trained people going into mission. It’s great that those people care so much about our flourishing that they are prepared to take on additional responsibilities, but we do need to take to care to clarify the different natures of the hats. Member care is primarily about helping individual people cope and grow whereas human resources is about providing the institutional support and processes that make it possible for both flourishing individuals and a growing thriving organisation. 

I’ve seen people in conflict over work roles and responsibilities being offered counseling rather than mediation or conflict resolution that might provide clarity and more healing than the best internal coping strategies. I’ve seen leaders offering to pray with a frustrated worker rather than committing to providing feedback or rebuking a manipulative co-worker or a neglectful supervisor. 

Sometimes in mission it’s further complicated by a misunderstanding of what the biblical response should be. The biblical approach is not a grin and bear it (or pray and bear it). It should be pray and fix, like we see with the response to the widows in Acts 6. If we care about people, we want to make their lives better not just enable them to better cope with their lives.  It’s good that we don’t fence employee wellbeing off into a separate and mostly token program like many corporations do. I love seeing organisations that take member care seriously and make it a key part of executive leadership strategy. One of the key ways we lead people is by connecting with them as individuals. The ultimate responsibility for member care should rest with leadership, but it needs not be the only way that we care for people. Caring for people can be as much about good management practices, clear policies, understandable processes. Clarity is loving. Practices, policies and processes that really understand people and their contexts, that are flexible and adaptable, can make a huge difference to individual flourishing and hence the effectiveness of the mission of our organisation as a whole. 

Gianpiero Petriglieri in an article about crisis leadership discusses the difference between interpersonal and institutional holding and the importance of institutional holding. He says:

“Leaders provide institutional holding by strengthening the structure and culture of an organization or group. They do it, for example, when they put in place policies and procedures that reassure people about their job security or how fairly the organization is treating them. They do it when they promote dialogue that lets diverse people participate in decisions and in adapting to new challenges together, rather than encouraging polarized factions. For leaders in executive positions, this is the most impactful way of holding people in a crisis. Failing to provide it makes expressions of sympathy and understanding ring hollow.”

I’ve only just finished the interim role and it was a bit of a whirlwind so undoubtedly would have been a lot more to learn over the long term. My approach in that short period was to see member care as primarily a form of interpersonal holding while human resources was about institutional holding. I think we should not forget that in our efforts to care for individuals. Leaders need to take ownership of ensuring that members get both interpersonal and institutional holding. 

That’s where the sociologist in me comes out; we exist in a context and in a series of relationships. Fixing that context and working on those relationships to me is as important (maybe more important) as working on ourselves in the quiet confidentiality of the counselor’s office. It’s also where the lawyer in me comes out. As interesting and important as court cases are every lawyer knows that if you can avoid court cases with carefully created agreements between individuals or create structural and social change with meticulously drafted legislation that is always preferable to the cost and pain of litigation. We should be holding our people in ways that create not just stronger individuals but stronger organisations.

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