February 27, 2017—I received a cryptic e-mail from a friend recently. She’s less than a year into a new church staff position. In her e-mail she asked the question, “Can you stop sabotage?” She didn’t go into details, but obviously, something’s going on (for one thing, it looks like the honeymoon period’s over!). I think it’s just as well that she didn’t get into specifics. Overfocusing on particulars of personalities, culture, and “the issue” runs the risk of moving too quickly into strategizing and overlooking emotional process dynamics.
Sabotage is a predictable reactive phenomenon to the threat of change. Anytime leaders work toward change, of whatever kind, they can expect reactivity. As such, we should always expect it. The form it takes, however, is often surprising. Sabotage is reactivity ramped up to the level of action intended to block change.
Author Paul Boers says this about sabotage:
While sabotage may feel off-putting and distancing, the behavior actually is intended to bring us back into a togetherness mode: the separation of differentiation is too uncomfortable for the system. Leaders must not be surprised, hurt, or offended by this reaction. Leaders are called to responsibility and growth, and this role can be lonely. Leadership includes the willingness to be misunderstood. Our differentiation is not assured until we can respond to sabotage in a healthy way without retribution, rigidity or dogmatism, cut-off, or withdrawal. (Arthur Paul Boers, Never Call Them Jerks . Alban, 1999).
So, in answer to my friend’s question, no, you can’t “stop” sabotage–it’s a basic form of reactivity. But, I think there are several ways leaders can deal with sabotage:
I don’t this it is much worth the effort to ascribe motive to saboteurs. As I say, “Never question people’s motives.” This is especially true when people are acting out of reactivity, which is non-thinking posture. Additionally, ascribing motive runs the risk that your response will be more about you than the other. Ascribing motive to others when we ourselves are reactive is a form of mindreading, and likely a form of projection. It is more helpful to work on observing function and dealing with the emotional process that is causing or contributing to people’s reactivity.
For example, when we experience sabotage, and can name it for what it is, we are more capable of thinking, “Ah, this functioning is reactivity related to a challenge to the homeostasis. Someone is feeling threatened by change. I don’t have to take this personally. How can I respond to this person or group in a way that addresses their anxiety while holding them responsible for how they function?”
I suspect there are two kinds of saboteurs. First, the un-intentional, unthinking persons who are caught up in anxiety and reactivity. They may merely need someone to help regulate their anxiety through staying connected, giving them perspective, or merely giving them an opportunity to share their concerns. The second type, however, is the deliberate, willful saboteurs. It think those need to be handled differently, and it’s worth not confusing the one for the other. The rules are different when someone is deliberately trying to do harm. Being “nice” tends to not be effective in that case.
To learn more about systems theory as a resource for ministry leadership attend the Leadership in Ministry workshops, part of the Pastoral Excellence Programs of the Center for Lifelong Learning.
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning and Director of Online Education at the Columbia Theological Seminary. Formerly, he was Dean at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer and Don Reagan.
His books on Christian education include Mastering the Art of Instruction,The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice), and A Christian Educator’s Book of Lists (S&H), and Theories of Learning for Christian Educators and Theological Faculty.
Galindo contributes to the Wabash Center’s blog for theological school deans.