What Control Is and Isn’t

As many of you know, about 4 weeks ago, we were gearing up for the 2017 Mid-Atlantic Congress. (We had a record-setting crowd, and many exciting, unexpected moments including the Archbishop Curley High School drum line and Loyola jazz band.)

If there is one thing that I have learned about managing a project or event it is this: Figure out what you can and cannot control early. Otherwise, you will either try to control everything–and alienate everyone around you–or you will control nothing–and stress out everyone around you.

And then there is this humbling revelation. You can’t really control anything. Not really. You and I don’t hold all of the strings to make anything happen the way we want it to. The most you can hope to do is influence a decision, person, or situation in such a way that the outcome you intend takes place.

A few examples.

At the 1999 National Catholic Youth Conference in the RCA Dome in St. Louis, I was the staff person who had overall responsibility for it, and as we were waiting for participants to start coming into the dome to get ready for a keynote, the wave of people was only a trickle. So, I hurriedly got myself to the main doors, and discovered that the dome security staff was forcing everything to walk up to a higher level, then down again to the floor of the dome, rather than just walk straight through to the floor. After some ineffective back and forth, I just “pulled rank” and said, “I pay the bills. Now open those doors.”

Funny thing is, they could have completely ignored me. I looked about 12 at the time, but they didn’t. Not one of my proudest moments, but one in which I felt I needed to take control.

For the current work that I do, I have a very skilled and gifted team that I work with. And when it comes down to it, I generally “sit in the circle of equals” and contribute like everyone else. It’s a more collaborative experience, and we each respect the knowledge and decision-making authority that we have.

One of the hardest things for me to watch these days is when someone tries desperately to grasp for control of the situation around them and hang on by a thread. By doing so, we often hurt the people around us (intentionally or unintentially), gather to ourselves decisions that aren’t ours to make or for which we do not have the experience and/or knowledge, and put distance between those who are willing to support us in our efforts.

The Gospel for the 1st Sunday in Lent reminds us that God is in control of our lives ultimately. The decisions we make and the control we have is only there because of the gifts that God has given us. When we horde or overstep, we inch farther away from God. As this Lent unfolds, check whatever hunger begs you to grab control. And create or join a circle of equals in your ministry or workplace.

Do You Choose Angels or Devils?

When selecting or inviting people to be part of your team, do you choose angels or devils?

Angels are the people who walk alongside you, keep you from harm, and guide you along the path. They see the path clearly before you, and are eager to accompany you there. They want to see you succeed.

There can be a “devilish” side to them, though. In keeping you from harm, sometimes they prevent you from seeing the people, problems, and issues that can threaten your program or challenge you to grow. Or the path they are treading may not be the path you want to or should be traveling.

And devils? Well, sometimes we are unfortunate enough that they volunteer themselves to work with you. Maybe they have a concern that no one has listened to or acknowledged, and they feel unheard. Maybe they don’t like change, and this is their way of preserving the status quo. Or maybe they just think a different way.

There can be an angel hiding inside that devilish skin. We’ve all known people like this. We call them “devil’s advocates” or the rivals in the infamous Lincoln’s “Team of Rivals.” Their contrariness can be a blessing in disguise when we give it voice and attention. Walking in their shoes, taking their perspective, can sometimes lead us along paths that we would not have considered, or question the path that we have traveled along, maybe, too long (?)

As we journey through this presidential transition, consider who is part of your team–both formally and informally. Who are the angels and who are the devils? Because every team needs a few of each in order to prevent the team from just saying “yes” to every decision, rarely challenging the choices you make, and ensuring that all of the voices and perspectives are heard.

The Twin Problems of Noise and Bias

pebblesEveryone wants to make good decisions. But the “good” part is often the challenge.

We make decisions all the time. Some are terribly inconsequential like which flavor candy so I want, cherry or sour apple. Some are not so inconsequential and can have long-term and long-lasting impact.

October’s Harvard Business Review includes an article on the cost inherent in bad decision-making because of the impact of noise and bias in the process. So, where do we see noise and bias in ministry decisions and what impact can they have?

Let’s start with some basic definitions. “Noise” prevents us from looking at the problem or situation accurately; it creates diversions and scatters our vision and thinking. “Bias” shifts our focus, and it is usually a shift in everyone’s focus.

Some examples? Bias is the committee thinking that we can hire a part-time youth minister because we only see 20 or 30 teens involved when the facts are there are more than 150 teens engaged in various ministries and activities (real life example.) Noise is asking 5 different people what youth ministry at the parish like and getting 5 totally different answers.

How do we correct for these?

Bias tends to reflects what we “know” (or think we know) about people and situations. Letting go of the “thinking that we know” moves us toward a solution. Before making a decision, list what are the things that we think we know about the person and/or situation (think about those assumptions.)  Identify what is irrelevant or prejudicial to making a sound and open-minded decision based on fact. Deeply consider the question, “What don’t we know about this person or situation?” before going any further. What remains is likely closest to the unbiased truth.

Noise is like throwing pebbles in the air and watching them drop to the ground–they fall all over the place. But we can control the noise just like we can control the trajectory of the pebbles by putting them inside one container before we toss them. Noise requires that we ask what the traits, characteristics, or qualifications are that we are looking for. What should be on our checklist of things that would make the decision the right one for this parish or school or organization?

The road to good decisions leads through reducing bias and noise so that we end up with the reasons and needs that are truly at the core of who we are and what we believe–usually our mission or in the service of the Gospel.