Expert insights on healthy work culture for Christian workplaces
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Illustrations by Daniel Castiñeiras
large painting of starlings hangs in the Elmira, Ont., office of the Canadian Centre for Christian Charities. Starlings are small birds that fly together in the thousands as if they were a single fluid cloud, their course not dominated by a single leader. (View such a murmuration at https://youtu.be/V4f_1_r80RY.)
CEO John Pellowe says the painting signifies the collegial culture at the centre, commonly nicknamed the Four Cs, which offers administrative and leadership support to Christian organizations and churches.
That collegial, collaborative culture is the secret sauce that makes any workplace healthier, more productive and creative, according to Barry Slauenwhite, Canadian regional director of the Best Christian Workplaces Institute. It’s true whether the workplace is an office, a group of people each working from home, a resource centre, an agricultural setting, or any of the wide range of contexts that make up the Canadian Christian ecosystem.
Eight drivers of a flourishing workplace culture
By Best Christian Workplaces Institute
The drivers spell the acronym FLOURISH.
- Fantastic teams
- Life-giving work
- Outstanding talent
- Uplifting growth
- Rewarding compensation
- Inspirational leadership
- Sustainable strategy
- Healthy communication
"Collaboration is bringing every one to the table and making the best decisions," says Slauenwhite. "The person on the floor has as much right to an opinion as the person in the boardroom or the executive office."
He acknowledges that leaders can’t implement every idea shared, but they can pay careful attention. "When I was CEO of Compassion Canada, I would be constantly amazed at the ideas that trickled up to me from staff." His response was often, "Good point. Why didn’t I think of that?"
Collaboration creates engagement
The most important element of a collaborative workplace is employee engagement, according to both Pellowe and a white paper entitled The 8 Drivers of a Flourishing Work place Culture at BCWInstitute.org.
The white paper quotes business professor William Kahn’s definition of engagement as "The harnessing of organization members’ selves to their work roles. People employ and express themselves physically, cognitively and emotionally" while working for the organization.
Engagement doesn’t mean employees are always happy or that a healthy workplace is devoid of disagreement and conflict. It means employees willingly present themselves, their talent, creativity, experience and insights to bolster the organization’s strengths and face its challenges.
Pellowe considers engagement in terms of God-given stewardship. "Every person here is gifted by God in some way. If their gifts relate to anything that we can use, are we using them? We’ve asked people and trained them to think about their jobs as stewards of their jobs, to believe that it’s more than just, ‘I’m hired to perform a function,’ but ‘I’ve got ownership of this part of it.’ "
He says engagement in a healthy workplace is ultimately about faithfulness to Christian mission. "If Jesus Christ worked [here], after He’d been here for a while, would He be saying, ‘Gee, John reminds me of myself?’ Or would He be saying, ‘I think I’ll take my skills and gifts elsewhere.’"
"Collaboration is bringing everyone to the table and making the best decisions."
The eight drivers in action
The Workplaces Institute was developed to tailor human resource best practices to Christian contexts. It is based near Seattle, Wash., and maintains a Canadian office in London, Ont. The institute takes the pulse of office culture at congregations and Christian organizations through surveys and interviews, and offers annual accreditation to organizations that meet their eight criteria or drivers of a healthy workplace.
The Mustard Seed, a street ministry that began in Calgary, Alta., providing basic needs to those experiencing homelessness, has used Workplaces Institute principles to improve their culture. Current CEO Stephen Wile recounts that when he came on board, employees had developed a habit of disrespect ful speech to each other, creating a toxic work environment.
That status quo was completely unsustainable. "The Mustard Seed deals with some of the most vulnerable citizens in our cities," Wile says. "That often means a level of anxiety and a level of stress. We don’t need to add to that stress, so we need to create an encouraging environment in which employees and volunteers like to come to work."
Wile and his team began to intentionally work to create a healthier, more collaborative and respectful environment. The Mustard Seed has now received Workplaces Institute accreditation every year since 2018, and has since expanded to 700 staff members, offers a wider range of services and includes operations in three more Alberta cities – Red Deer, Edmonton and Medicine Hat – as well as Kamloops, B.C.
The two-way street
Much workplace change starts at the management level. Slauenwhite says a healthy workplace "depends so much on leadership" to initiate the development of employee engagement, "to admit where things need help and to take action" on employees’ suggestions.
Inspirational leaders have four markers, according to Slauenwhite. They take ownership of the responsibility to develop a healthy workplace. They measure the office’s health (Slauenwhite points to Workplaces Institute surveys as helpful) along with informal conversation and skip-level interviews. They ensure fair and uniform accountability throughout the organization, especially of their own actions. And above all they take the initiative to foster a collaborative and collegial culture.
Healthy communication is a leader’s first and most important task. It’s the essential ingredient in that collaborative secret sauce," says Slauenwhite. "If all you do is address the need for healthy communication, everything else is going to improve."
Of course, whether it’s within a family, a business, an informal community or a nonprofit organization, communication is a two-way street. Leaders need to express themselves clearly and engage in active listening.
At The Mustard Seed Wile exemplified clear expression when he began to curb the disrespect among staff. He instilled mutual respect as a core value of the organization (TheSeed.ca/About) by initiating conversations with staff about specific incidents so they could all improve together.
Information sharing was also critical. "We’re not going to play the knowledge is power game here at The Mustard Seed," Wile says. "You need to be sharing information with your other managers, other directors and your staff."
Over at the Four Cs (certified by the Workplaces Institute since 2017), Pellowe depends on intentional listening. Throughout the year he periodically asks employees for feedback on the organization’s overall culture. "What can I do to be a better leader for them? Am I a bottleneck? Are they getting what they want from me?"
Healthy communication is a leader’s first and most important task.
Again, genuine listening means that leaders seriously act on employees’ ideas and suggestions, or at least seriously consider them as part of the organization’s overall plan. "The only thing worse for morale than not listening to your employees," Pellowe says, echoing Slauenwhite, "is to ask for their feedback and do nothing about it."
This active, collaborative listening is the most direct driver of employee engagement where the beauty of the starling murmuration depicted in the Four Cs office comes into view. If employees know their ideas, input and work matter to the whole organization, then they will be encouraged to keep on collaborating, offering their ideas, input and work.
It’s also the best opportunity for employees to contribute to a healthy workplace. Slauenwhite encourages staff members to "be open and transparent" with feed back because engaged employees "care about the ministry enough to bring ideas and concerns to their supervisors’ attention."
However, he cautions against employees taking advantage of a supervisor’s openness by presenting a divisive agenda or hostile attitude. The goal is to contribute to the team. It’s up to the leader to initiate a collaborative culture through feedback opportunities and consultation, but it’s up to everyone to maintain that culture. Again, a two-way street – employees need to speak up and listen well too.
Inclusivity and intercultural competence
Many nonprofit and private sectors look at workplace health in light of what they call Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
The idea is that workplaces sometimes have obstacles that prevent them from appropriately reflecting the population of wider society. For example, women are 51 per cent of the overall population, but only 41 per cent of board membership. Minorities make up 23 per cent of the Canadian population, but only 10 per cent of board membership.
These statistics are according to a 2020 presentation from the Diversity Institute at Toronto Metropolitan University. A different institute report argues workplace diversity increases collaboration and respect, and can open an organization to new ideas and avenues for growth.
For additional interviews on workplace inclusion with Christian experts, see FaithToday.ca/WorkplaceInclusion. –MN
Compensation and benefits
Wile mentions a more material driver to Mustard Seed’s success. He’s aware of the financial pressures of nonprofit, social justice-oriented organizations, but counters the narrative that such organizations can only afford to pay employees shoestring wages and offer minimal benefits. "We don’t want to add to the poverty index."
After publicly expressing his commitment to fair pay and comprehensive benefits at a fundraising event, a donor made a generous $400,000 donation that covered two-thirds of the compensation goal he had set for The Mustard Seed.
Pellowe says the Four Cs upholds a similar care for the whole person who works there, such as by maintaining an active and family-oriented social committee and respecting employees’ needs for healthy boundaries. Staff members can be flexible with their mix of working from home and working in-office, and are free to book time off to attend family events. Leadership expects employees to limit their work week to 35 hours as best they can.
At the end of the day …
Amid all this talk of culture, collaboration and engagement, what of the concrete work of productivity, goals and objectives? "You’ve gotta have goals and deadlines and project management because that is what co-ordinates the work," Pellowe says. "But our plans do not master us. We are the master of our plans."
The way an organization responds when plans don’t work out shows a stark difference between a toxic and healthy workplace. Accountability is still one of Slauenwhite’s marks of an inspiring leader, and Wile’s experience shows that accountability is part of the two-way street of healthy communication. The difference is all about what accountability entails, how it’s pursued and who it’s directed at.
Pellowe bemoans the way some organizations create a rigid, dog-eat-dog environment by regularly firing their least-productive employees. Instead the Four Cs opts for an objective assessment and a flexible response.
"When something comes up and goals aren’t going to be met, we reorganize and reprioritize," he explains. They adjust goals and expectations to adapt to "new information that comes in or if there’s a greater opportunity that we’d rather shift to." Such explanations for failure are far more common than simple incompetence.
The way an organization responds when plans don’t work out shows a stark difference between a toxic and healthy workplace.
As the 8 Drivers document points out, healthy workplaces consistently hire and develop "outstanding talent" and craft "sustainable strategies." Both of these drivers hearken back to Pellowe’s point about stewardship.
He says he thinks a lot about stewardship and accountability in terms of his own role as the leader of a Christian workplace. At the end of the day, Christians look to one judge alone, who will definitively tell us how well we all stewarded our roles and vocations.
"One day we’ll be called to account by God," he says. "How did we allow His people to flourish under our leadership? Did we help them be everything that God wanted them to be? Or did we squelch them?"
Listen to a new Faith Today Podcast episode with Al Lopus, cofounder of the Best Christian Workplaces Institute and author of the new book The Road to Flourishing: Eight Keys to Boost Employee Engagement and Well-Being (IVP, 2022) at FaithToday.ca/Podcasts
is a Toronto writer and a digital marketing co-ordinator for Salt + Light Media. Last summer he interned at