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Faith-in-workplace issues require sensitivity and clarity

October 27, 2008

The Client
Name: Sam
Age: 37
Title: Technology group manager
Time at organization: Five years
Industry: Manufacturing
Issue: Managing religion in the workplace
Q. I’m a new manager who inherited a supervisor whose response to most crises is “let go, let God.” While I respect her religious outlook and the equanimity it provides her, most employees need more direction, to say nothing of having different, or no, religious views. How can I approach her without seeming to mock a religiosity I don’t share?

A. Religion in the workplace is a sensitive topic; nevertheless, setting clear expectations for management behavior and showing acceptance for her beliefs will help you move forward.

The inner game
It’s essential that you start from a position of respect for your supervisor’s beliefs. Start with checking out your feelings about the situation apart from concerns with the management issue. Evaluate whether it brings up emotions that could interfere with your objectivity. Reactions can be all over the board, from feeling judged or excluded to feeling superior or condescending. These could derail the conversations you’ll need to have, so take a deep look so you don’t blindside yourself.

Define your vision for her performance. Identify the skills she needs and the behavior you expect. Focus on the strengths you’ve observed, and envision ways she can draw on her faith-based serenity while giving the guidance her team needs.

Consider that she may need help in building her management skills, identifying gaps that training may address. She may use her current approach because she hasn’t developed other leadership skills. Also, know what resources you have for internal or external training.

Decide how serious this issue is. If she needs to change in order to keep her job, for example, be ready to make that clear.

The outer game
Focus on the desired outcome, rather than stage a confrontation.

Have a conversation with her, beginning with your vision for her success, and outlining the skills and behavior that will help her succeed. If your organization has lists of key competencies or success measures, these may help get to the necessary level of detail.

Tell her how her religious approach affects others. Have examples ready in case she challenges you. Remind her that the issue isn’t related to what she believes, but to how she performs her job. Also, make the point that all employees need to feel equally respected for their beliefs. If you encounter substantial resistance, be ready to talk about the consequences if she doesn’t develop her management skills.

Once you’re on the same page, move quickly to develop and implement a learning plan. Using the list of needed skills, discuss where she’d like to start. She’ll be more engaged if she drives the plan, so ask her to draft an approach and bring it to you for feedback. She may also find it useful to get feedback from her team. Provide plenty of positive reinforcement as she changes, and make a commitment to her growth as a leader.

The last word
Communication about your expectations, along with respect for her individual beliefs, will give you the tools to help your supervisor succeed.

Liz Reyer, President RCC - Posted October 26, 2008
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