Seeking the Grail: When my Group Fails Me

Seeking the Grail: When my Group Fails Me February 15, 2016

One area where my own flaws become obvious is when I’m in the role of running a large creative project like planning an event. Often, I’ve felt that my team was failing me. But it’s crucial for a leader to ask the question: was it really a failure on the part of a member (or members) of the group? Or was it something I brought about because of my own issues as a person and leader? (Hint: Sometimes it’s both.) I recently wrote about how sometimes the surge of creativity and inspiration turns into obsession when I’m running events; I’m aware of my flaws. But what about when we did everything we were supposed to and there were still problems?

Courtesy of Shauna Aura Knight
Courtesy of Shauna Aura Knight

I write a lot about personal growth work on the path of spiritual seeking, but often the motivation for this work in my own life has been to be come a better leader, a better servant of community. For me, that’s part of the Grail mysteries; it’s great to find the Grail for myself, but the Grail is a cup of service.

“They Dropped the Ball.”

I hear this a lot from Pagan leaders; they’re upset that their volunteers or team members failed to get the work done that they promised to do. Or perhaps those folks just didn’t do a good job at the tasks they had agreed to do, and it had a negative impact on the event.

The next words in the script after “They dropped the ball” are the fateful, “Maybe I should just do it all myself from now on” Guess what–I’ve said that myself too.

When leaders discuss these frustrations, some just nod and agree. “I’ve been burned, too. I always end up doing it all myself. Everyone always drops the ball.” Other leaders  offer the armchair advice, “Oh, you need to get better at delegating.” But it’s not really that easy.

“Learn to delegate” is one of the most common pieces of leadership advice I hear, but it’s vague to the point of uselessness. It’s not that delegating is a bad idea, but how you delegate is crucial. In fact, when I put out the call for submissions for the newly released Pagan Leadership Anthology that Taylor Ellwood and I co-edited, I specifically asked that anyone talking about burnout or delegation must include some practical and real world examples and advice beyond just telling people, “Delegate more.”

And as it happens, the topics of burnout and delegation were so common that they became an entire section of the anthology.

“How Can I Get People to Do More?”

I hear this question a lot when I teach workshops; frazzled leaders try to run events on shoestring budgets without enough volunteers and want to know how to get people to volunteer–and to actually follow through with the tasks they agreed to. A lot of delegation advice focuses on not micromanaging people and trusting them to get the work done, but what happens when folks just genuinely fail to do their job? Or they do such a poor job that the event/project suffers? Or, they do some work, but they are so irritable or offensive that you dread working with them?

Well…what would you do if they were your employees?

Probably after coaching them, if they failed to improve, you’d fire them. When I suggest this to Pagan leaders they panic. “If I kick Person B off the team, I’ll only have 4 leaders instead of 5, how will we ever get everything done?”

We face a numerical challenge; there are only so many of us in any given area. And, there’s only so many of us with the urge to step up and do something. And you can encourage volunteers but you can’t make anyone want to do things…and just because someone’s a willing volunteer doesn’t mean they have the professional skills to do the job.

Delegation and Math

Delegation is awesome if you have a team of people willing to step up–and, if they will actually follow through and do the job. And if they have the skills (or are willing to learn them) to do the work. Sometimes it’s just the luck of the draw; some groups are blessed with a plethora of mature individuals with the motivation to volunteer, the skills, and the follow-through.

Other Pagan groups exist in a desert where there just aren’t many people willing to step up. Why? Well, that can start to get into complicated sociology and anthropology. Rural areas might have low population density and less access to high-paying jobs. And that can impact educational opportunities. Sometimes Pagans gravitate toward more urban areas where they face less discrimination and have access to better resources, so some areas end up with more talented, motivated Pagans.

Sometimes it’s just luck who ends up living where. So yeah–sometimes, it’s not your fault, sometimes there genuinely isn’t anyone local you can delegate task to.. In those situations, I scale back my plans to avoid burnout.

Sometimes, it’s You

And…sometimes, the failure is on the leader. Often the most motivated group leaders are :

  1. Visionary entrepreneurs
  2. Control Freaks
  3. Bad at managing people

Just because someone is a motivated visionary who is good at planning doesn’t mean that person is good with people. In fact–focused visionaries have a track record of being rough around the edges to work with.

The “control freak” leadership style is often the cause of the problem. I’ve been on both sides of this. Sometimes the control freak bears down so hard on members of the team that they quit in frustration, vs. dropping the ball. A leader’s ability to work with people has a big impact. Do you enjoy working with people? Do you have patience for the different ways people work through a problem? Or, do people consistently frustrate you? Are you more at home with data, organizing, planning?

This goes into multiple intelligences as well as introversion and extroversion. You can see how tension forms when a volunteer seeks warmth and connection from a data-oriented introvert.

Some people visualize well in their heads, but they get frustrated at people who can’t “see the vision.” They often get frustrated when they have to explain things one step at a time. On the other side, the folks who need that step-by-step outlining of things get frustrated by people who synthesize a lot of data quickly.

Communication Challenges

Learning modalities/intelligences can cause invisible friction. I’m a very visual thinker; I tend to organize documents, flow charts, and grids that illustrate processes. However, one leader I used to work with is a verbal/auditory learner. Even when I had outlined everything in documents, I still had to sit with him in a meeting and verbally talk everything through. Another member of our planning team pointed out, “Uh, everything she just said, is on the documents that she sent out last week.” I felt like it was a wasted two-hour meeting. I’d typed everything out and made diagrams, so they should know it, right?

Except, learning modalities don’t work like that. We often frustrate each other completely unintentionally. Now, that particular leader and I have talked about our different approaches to communication–I prefer visual (email, chat, documents) and he loves a phone call. We often compromise with a Skype call. Me working out all the documents/flowcharts/grids/plans ahead of time is still a good process because it helps me to verbally articulate what’s going on in my head. And talking things through with him helps to bring up the “gaps” in the plan.

“So What Do I Do?”

Know yourself. Read up on the various learning modalities and  intelligences. Get familiar with a personality test like Myers Briggs so that you can flag your own weaknesses and strengths. Especially pay attention to the types of personalities that are going to rub you the wrong way. If you can understand why it’s happening, you can ease the tension. “Ah, he’s a kinesthetic learner, ok. I have to adapt how I communicate,” instead of, “Why doesn’t he get what I’m saying???!”

The next step is helping your whole team understand their own quirks and learning modalities. In fact, I have seen working groups deflate their tension once they transparently discuss how Person A is an introverted  visual learner who’s better with data, and Person B is a gregarious extrovert who’s a verbal external processor, and Person C is a concrete/linear thinker, Person D is an abstract thinker, etc. If you all know where you’re coming from, then you can be more patient with each other and understand that person C’s nitpicky questions make for a better event and aren’t intended to slight you or judge you. Because–really–you want those nitpicky questions about how the coffee is being made before the weekend-long conference starts, not in the midst of things. 

Sometimes people drop the ball because they were well-meaning but too busy. Sometimes they fail to complete their tasks because of conflicts that arise in the group. People are often conflict avoidant, and if they feel they are being judged, they may simply just ghost away instead of offering feedback. This is why it’s crucial to understand the ways our brains work and our assumptions.

Failure of the Golden Rule

This is where the “Golden Rule” shoots us in the foot; “Do unto others as you’d have done unto you” is actually pretty poor advice. We communicate in different ways and have very different expectations. A touchy-feely extrovert assuming everyone wants a hug is going to cause problems for your shy introvert. Your task-focused visual learner might get frustrated when other team members want to meet in person at a social place like a bar. Your sensitive extrovert who is great at greeting people at the event might get turned off by a leader who doesn’t offer them warmth and praise.

I’ve heard leaders tell me, “I have this huge pet peeve. I had a meeting and it drives me nuts when my team members don’t pay attention to the words I just said. They don’t remember any of it.” And I get that; it is frustrating. There are a several factors. If you’re the primary driver on the project then you have the most emotion invested in it…it’s on your brain all the time. A volunteer might not have that much invested and might be more forgetful. A visual volunteer might also not retain information well if they only heard it.

While you can’t force people to be invested and volunteer, you can at least work to ensure that diverse personalities don’t blow up the team before things even get cooking. Talking about our differences and preferences derails a lot of conflicts and builds trust so you can cultivate more leaders.

This doesn’t mean that you should put up with rude behavior. I’m willing to make a lot of accommodations for different learning modalities, different personality types and their needs. But if someone is offensive or harmful to other group members, it’s time for them to go no matter how much work they’ve done. If someone is consistently pecking at me or other group members, if they aren’t being constructive or helping but only nitpicking or engaging in a power play, it’s time for them to go too.

And, if the focus of the group is running an event and someone consistently volunteers to do something, but fails to do it, or makes huge mistakes and isn’t responsive to constructive feedback, at some point I have to recognize that it’s a mistake to give them that task again. Similarly, if someone has continually made mistakes in their job role, and isn’t responsive to constructive feedback, that’s time to consider if that’s the best work for them to be doing.

Keeping a Lid On It

I admit it, I have a temper…and I know a lot of other visionary leaders do too. So how do you keep a lid on when the people on your team are dropping the ball, or asking repeated questions and your anxiety level is going through the roof? How do you appear level?

Generally, being too emotional isn’t my problem; my mom says I’m part Vulcan.  That all changes when I’m in high creative gear working on a big project and the people I entrusted to do things are failing to do them or not communicating at all. Or when I explained something in-depth at a meeting, and someone missed the meeting and needs me to go over it again. Or I took hours to prepare a spreadsheet and…yeah, I get overloaded. And impatient.

Stress is something we can hear and smell; pheromones, body language, tone of voice…so it’s hard to hide. The best thing I’ve found is cliche, but just breathing really does help. It slows your heart rate and gives you a moment to think instead if going with your emotional reaction.

I have a few phrases I keep in my back pocket to buy time.  “Hey, I need a moment to think about what you’re asking.” Having something you can say on autopilot helps. Imagine, you’re running an event, and you’ve got people coming up to you every five minutes asking you a question about how you want ABC, or where to put XYZ, or what do we do now that DEF table isn’t there, or Presenter A hasn’t shown up, or the DJ says they need more room to set up but there’s stuff in the way. They’re standing there staring at you, waiting for an answer. If you say, “Give me two shakes,” then they know you’re working on it, instead of them repeating their question (which is guaranteed to increase your anxiety).

Beneath all that is more personal work. If you find you really get frustrated when people aren’t doing work to your desired level of competence…it’s possible you’re a control freak. It’s not the end of the world, but it means more work. Some solutions are to recognize that the volunteer events aren’t going to have the same kind of polish that you’ve envisioned and be ok with that. Other solutions are to focus on running events only when you can plan to work with a skilled team as opposed to whatever volunteers were willing within your community. Or, it might just be that you aren’t great at breaking down volunteering work into discrete tasks.

If you’ve discovered you are impatient, and not really a people person, a solution I’ve often seen is finding a nice warm people-person extrovert to partner up with. Pro tip: Those folks are often really great at working with people and breaking down work into smaller tasks for volunteers!

Sometimes, it’s us as leaders that cause the group to fail. Sometimes, our group members cause the problem. And many other times, it’s the unseen conflicts of how we interact that cause our teams to fracture.

 Just Released!

Pagan Leadership Anthology: An Exploration of Leadership and Community in Paganism and Polytheism
Edited by Shauna Aura Knight & Taylor Ellwood

Pagan communities are evolving; we find ourselves in dire need of healthy, ethical leaders. This anthology offers tools, techniques, and hands-on experience from over thirty Pagan authors, exploring topics of communication, conflict, bylaws, predators, personal work, and more to help you become a better leader and enrich your community.  More details available here.


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