Why Your Workplace Needs More Sinners, Fewer Saints

By Melanie Lockwood Herman

My least favorite interview question is one that is irresistible to many employers: what is your biggest weakness? A typical answer is something like “I’m a perfectionist.” Although I don’t ask the biggest weakness question, I’ve found that some candidates find a way to share that ‘revelation’ during conversation. Despite being in a state of uncomfortable vulnerability, most interviewees are unlikely to share critical observations made by a former employer. Instead, a candidate offers a strength draped in a transparent costume.

Employers and employees might believe that sainthood is the path to success in the workplace, but I disagree. Seven of the deadly ‘sins’ that our workplaces desperately need include:

  1. Willingness to take risk – Stagnation might be the greatest sin of any nonprofit, and a sure path to ruin. Individuals and teams must willingly venture into the unknown in order to innovate and forge the future.
  2. Accountability for mistakes and mishaps – An executive or employee who hasn’t said, “I’m sorry, I messed up.” recently isn’t being honest with herself—or with you. We all make mistakes, and the most productive team members probably make mistakes more often than poor performers. A team member or leader who refuses to accept responsibility for personal mistakes fuels frustration and demotivates the whole team.
  3. Radically ambitious goals – During the annual budget process and conversation with the NRMC board, we often hear, “are you sure you can do all that?” Long before the plan is presented to the board, our team wrestles with that question. Our 2017 work plan included a lot of radically ambitious goals: a benchmarking app, a risk leadership certificate program, a book, and an interactive risk ranking/risk assessment web app. Those goals were all on top of our regular fare, such as serving up educational materials for the sector, answering RISK HELP questions from our Affiliate Members, designing and delivering monthly webinars, empowering our consulting clients to evolve their risk capabilities, and delivering a first-class conference. Did I mention we’re a team of four?
  4. Respectful honesty – In our travels in and around the nonprofit sector, we’ve witnessed a lot of simmering frustration and conflict cover-ups. Many people are conflict avoiders. At NRMC we remind ourselves to resist the simple path of poking one or more holes in someone’s idea, replacing that deflating practice with something additive, such as: “That’s great, but how about with this twist…”
  5. Asking for help – If you’ve ever worked with someone who professes “I’ve got this” but doesn’t deliver, you’ve experienced the deadly sin of hubris. Few teams can afford excessive pride. At NRMC we’ve added questions about seeking help from others to our staff meeting agendas and annual performance review process, as reminders to ask for and provide help to our teammates.
  6. Asking tough questions – We all know how hard it is to critically assess beloved programs, services, resources, and even the strategies we have tethered ourselves to. Team members sometimes get slapped on the wrist for questioning how something has always been done, and whether it should change, evolve, or wind down. The NRMC team recently spent time reflecting on: our 2018 plans; assumptions underlying those plans; the needs of nonprofit Risk Champions; and, what we should—or shouldn’t—do next year. These conversations are sure to tug at the heartstrings and personal pride of team members involved in the initiatives in question, but these tough talks are often the foundation for new, groundbreaking work.
  7. Looking past the now – Many challenges related to workplace culture, poor decision-making, and strategic misfires share a common failure point: losing sight of mission. Working nose-to-the-grind can cause anyone to forget the endgame. Team members might disagree about how to arrive there, but a team’s north star will remain steadfast when others favor trudging through the now at the expense of long-term plans. Speak up whenever shiny pennies, personal disagreements, or indecision cloud the real reason your team exists.

As a former church lay speaker, I never imagined I’d be telling my risk-focused flock to sin more! But to become the nonprofit leaders we wish to be, we all need the courage to defy workplace norms. As fictional, hedonistic Lord Henry Wotton said, “You will always be fond of me. I represent to you all the sins you never had the courage to commit.” – Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

Melanie Lockwood Herman is Executive Director of the Nonprofit Risk Management Center. Melanie welcomes your thoughts about the risky downsides of sainthood at work, at Melanie@nonprofitrisk.org or 703.777.3504.