Don’t survey the crowd, survey your leaders

like it?Several years ago, a mentor gave me some important advice: “Don’t survey the general crowd for what you need to do. Survey your leaders.”

Ask everyone, he warned, and you’ll get a lot of answers that are about individuals’ personal needs. You’ll get “consumer” feedback. Regardless of how you frame it, I think asking for people’s feedback in a large forum will ultimately be heard by many as, “What do you like? What do you not like?” Essentially, “how can we please you as a customer?”

By even asking in this context, you’ll be promoting a consumer mentality. Later, people will come and say, “I told you I thought we needed a ______, and there’s still no sign of it. Why not?”

Ask your leaders, and the focus of the responses should be different. If your leaders are good leaders, they know the people. They know what a lot of your people are thinking. What your people need. If you have found/chosen your leaders wisely, they’re mature. Spiritually mature, emotionally mature. And if you’ve worked with and trained your leaders the way you should have, they understand the larger mission you’re after, the values and culture you want to develop, and even some of the reasons that certain things sound like good ideas but are fraught with problems in reality.

Your leaders should be able to speak well to what your people need, but they’ll speak to it differently. It won’t come as a list of demands or personal desires. It will come from a desire to make the whole better, to advance your common cause.

I spent a good chunk of time recently with our community’s leadership team, and it was a great experience. Refreshing. Refining. We took an honest look at how our community is doing and made a number of hard assessments.

Now I’ll admit I’m often quick to defensiveness and rationalization when it comes to hearing about weaknesses and missed opportunities. It usually doesn’t feel good to hear those things, and I tend to want to qualify and contest them. There was none of that this weekend. There was no need for it. There was a sense that we’re all in this together. And a sense that we all want the same thing: to be better.

Could I have gotten a lot of the same assessment from our larger congregation? I think so. I think these leaders have a pretty good read on the larger group, so I hope their responses reflected a lot of the things we would have heard from the larger group.

And please don’t get me wrong — many others in the congregation (I’d go so far as to say most), given the same focus and environment would have come to these assessment questions with just as much of a team-spirit and charitable attitude. I’m not trying to draw a clean line here between the “official leadership team,” who can be trusted to handle honest assessment well, and all the rest, who will just tell you what they want. That’s not how it is.

But in a number of settings, I’ve also witnessed how that “consumer” mentality takes over when assessment is open to the general public. It’s not that everyone begins to demand what they need, but a few do. And those squeaky wheels will squeak louder and louder. And they’ll begin to influence others to start thinking about their wants and needs. And in the end, the majority of what you’re able to hear and take away will be squeaking wheels.

Now there’s something to be said for allowing everyone to be heard. When you give everyone a chance to share their feelings and ideas, you help them feel like they haven’t been silenced and ignored. I’m still trying to find the best way to handle that. I see its need and its purpose. I’ve seen it done in the form of a “listening session,” where the goal isn’t to resolve or explain anything, but simply to listen to the people.

But I’ve also seen this: after those listening sessions, people came back and asked, “So what did you do about it?” They had shared a felt need, but their desire wasn’t just to be heard. Their desire was that something happen. And they had every right to expect that. If it was just about them being heard, but nothing changing, they might as well have spent that hour doing something more useful. We set people up for disappointment when we tell them we want to “listen” but have no follow-up. So then, the idea of a “listening session” being all about listening isn’t really true. It implies action. Are you ready to take action? And is the general public the best group for you to survey before you take action?

In all, I’ve found it most productive and helpful to ask my leaders for their gut-wrenching honest assessents of how we’re doing. I’ll talk to many others one-on-one, and certainly if they seek me out to discuss something they’re seeing, but I think my mentor’s advice on this was good. “Don’t survey the general crowd for what you need to do. Survey your leaders.”

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