workplace, management, mercy, policy

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The Workplace Doesn’t Have to Be Ruthless 

Some practical advice: Managers should be merciful.

Early in his career, Jack Welch made a mistake at work that cost the company several million dollars. He expected to be fired. Instead, Welch’s boss decided to consider the blunder a teaching moment, rather than the end of the road for Welch’s time at the company. Knowing Welch had much to learn, his boss decided to see the cost as several million dollars invested in Welch’s executive education. Welch went on to be one of the most successful CEOs of General Electric, and some argue that he became the greatest CEO of his day (or at least the “first celebrity CEO”).

Forgiving a million-dollar mistake was not the norm. It still isn’t. And Welch’s story is a prime example of how, in our places of work, we could use less ruthlessness and more mercy.

Mercy works

As Christians, we are called to this. Jesus worked, too, and presumably he showed mercy to uncaring coworkers, cranky customers, and shoddy suppliers (1 Cor 13:1–3). Even as a craftsman in Galilee, he is our primary example of love and mercy. And he teaches us to live mercifully, too. 

In the parable of the unmerciful servant, a man forgives an impossibly large debt. But his servant whose debt he had forgiven, then, instead of showing the same mercy, goes on to demand repayment from others who owed him even smaller amounts. In response, Peter asked Jesus if we are to forgive as many as seven times. Jesus replied: “Not seven times but 77 times.” 

Forgive more than expected? Show mercy when it doesn’t seem warranted? The modern business world seems to struggle here as much as we do. So how do we, as leaders, coworkers, and managers, make mercy a part of our work?

Seek understanding, not blame

Statistical Process Control (SPC) analysis, or the use of the standard for monitoring and controlling the quality of any organizational process, can be applied to any measurable product or process — customer satisfaction, manufacturing processes, profit, readership, shares/reposts, church attendance, and more. And SPC standards make clearly defined boundaries for consistency: Eight consecutive “below-average” results mean there’s a problem to be fixed. Eight below-average results, perhaps eight late deliveries or eight missed sales quotas, for example, would call for investigation to diagnose a mechanical glitch or poorly understood instruction.

These kinds of standards do not allow for those 77 mistakes. After all, if we had 77 instances of out-of-spec technology — heaven help us, not in pharmaceuticals or aerospace — we’d have high costs, dissatisfied customers, and would probably be headed out of business. But they don’t make practicing mercy at work impossible. If a product or process can see up to eight negative reviews how much more understanding can we (reasonably) extend to the people who create these products and carry out these processes. It’s up to owners, managers, or administrators to meet the call to mercy here. 

This means, as colleagues and as leaders, we are not quick to blame; instead, we investigate. 

Because variation in our performance and the performance of our colleagues is normal, and that performance is subject to the complex variables that come with being human. So a drop in profits one month should not drive alarm. Instead of manning the battle stations when it happens once, we pay close attention to next month. Each subsequent month has a 50/50 chance of being more or less profitable than the previous. Until a significantly adverse result occurs again and again, we must understand a system, process, or procedure, or especially the employee involved, may not be faulty. 

Mercy at work can look like a thorough investigation. A detrimental result is not always an indication of willful disobedience. 

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy

We build processes and procedures knowing there will always be varied results in their use. It is nearly impossible to get the same result every time. When we understand and expect this, we can treat our coworkers and teammates with mercy, not blaming them for the problems our organizations or customers experience. 

As a manager, executive, and business owner myself, I’ve had employees wonder why they weren’t being fired, demoted, or rated “below average” for certain mistakes or periods of low productivity. I hoped to teach them how to see how standards are set as well as how to review their performance at the end of the day. In turn, we could all operate under the understanding that the design of the system may contribute to poor results, that we must investigate the work of the system as well as the work of the people. W. Edwards Deming, international consultant in management and quality and recipient of the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 1987, conjectured that 80–98 percent of organizational problems are not the fault of the employee directly involved. In fact, most of these issues are influenced by management because they design the business processes and acquire, allocate, and control resources. Seeking understanding instead of blame in our workplace, my colleagues were more likely to show mercy to others on their own teams as well, investing their time in a solution, instead of shame. 

Individuals suffer in the business world. They lose jobs despite their excellent performance. Companies fail when markets are disrupted with new technologies or new customer preferences. So let’s not compound the misery by blaming those who are trying to do their best. Jack Welch’s former boss had the right idea. Practicing mercy in this way, our responses to crises become more focused on solutions, not scapegoats, invested in our people, too, not just the bottom line.

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