Enable Reverse Flow

Another way to influence culture is by what I call “reverse flow.” On a cruise to Alaska, I had the privilege of taking an excursion and seeing a river with a small set of rapids that actually flowed both ways. Its current flowed downhill into the ocean, but due to the slight grade, when the tide would rise, it would actually push water backwards a significant distance. One part of the day the river flowed one way. Another part of the day it flowed the other.

I share this because another mistake we can make is to focus all our attention on communicating to our people while never giving them the opportunity to reverse the flow. I’ve read that communication occurs four times faster from the top down than from the bottom up. It’s much easier for the leadership to share what they want the people to hear than it is for the people to be heard by the leadership.

If people feel heard, they are much more likely to stay connected and on board. Furthermore, they may actually provide valuable insights that the leadership needs to hear. Even if they are complaining or making suggestions that are not going to work, they are more likely to stay in the game if they feel heard.

Therefore, it’s important to set up channels of communication so that feedback, frustration, and input can flow upstream. And when people take advantage of these opportunities, it’s imperative that the leaders are not defensive. Bite your tongue. Ask questions. But don’t argue in the real time. Tell them you’ll think about it, sleep on it, or talk about it with the other leaders. Then follow up with them and have a conversation. This kind of open communication may produce a few headaches, but giving people permission to offer input ultimately builds trust. And you may learn something valuable. The flip side of this is that if people don’t feel heard, they will internalize their frustrations and at some point blow up or walk away. 

--from Chapter 12 of Dirt Matters: The Foundation for a Healthy, Vibrant, and Effective Congregation

Next week, I will offer the sixth of the nine principles you can use to implant your church’s values into its culture.