Leadership Lesson: Beware the “Happy Talk”

18 Jun

I love thinking about leadership.

Much of leadership is exciting and positive, but there are also things that are threatening and negative.  As one who has been in tough decision-making situations where people have lost their jobs, there’s something I’ve learned that it might help you to know.  This is something that I think is true generally, but it’s also very much true in church ministry positions. It’s the Leadership “Happy Talk.”


Let’s cut to the chase.  Beware the Happy Talk. At all costs.

The “Happy Talk”  comes in two primary brands, but the intent and result are one and the same.  And they’re not good. The two questions commonly asked are one of the following:

  1. “Are You Happy?”
  2. “How Do You Think Things Are Going?”

Not What It Seems

The thing is– these aren’t really questions the supervisor is usually asking “for information.”  They are actually TELLING you something, not ASKING you something.   Let’s look at those again:

Question 1

  • Are YOU Happy?

The issue here APPEARS to be YOU and YOUR happiness, but that’s not really it.  It’s actually THE LEADER and His/Her Happiness WITH YOU.  In other words, the “right answer” to the Happy Question is always “No.”  As in, “No, I’m NOT happy.”  Even if I THOUGHT I was, apparently I’m NOT. And the reason I’m not happy is because YOU (my supervisor) are not happy.

This is a technique that some leaders use in order to pass on pink slips (OR to let you know that a pink slip is imminent if performance does not improve quickly).

Question 2

  • How do YOU think things are going?

Again, like the Happy Question, everything isn’t what it seems.  The question isn’t REALLY how YOU think things are going– but how THEY think things are going– and they’re apparently not going well.

So the answer to this second question is, “Not so great.”  At least that’s what is implied.  They are trying to tell the person, without telling the person, that they’re not pleased with the individual’s performance.  The problem could be a myriad of issues: poor attendance, disengagement, poor social skills, bad work ethic, inability to play well with others, lack of decorum, or about a million other things.

What Not To Think

If you’re put in a situation where these questions are asked– though there is always the chance the leader asking you *might not* be poised to can you, you need to make sure.  The worst thing to do is to assume that this is just a friendly chat.

My Advice

So if you’re ever in a situation when one or both of these questions are raised, brace yourself in a five-point seatbelt and respond to their question WITH a question.  I’d say something like this: “You know, that’s a good question (boss).  I think this is an amazing place to work and I count it a privilege and not an entitlement.  So more important to me isn’t so much how “I” think things are going but, instead, how YOU think things are going.”  I want you to know that I want to do everything within my power to be the best leader/minister/employee/staff person I can be, and would be happy to begin to make any changes you’d like to suggest if there are “blind spots” that I have and haven’t seen.  How do you think things are going, and how can I improve to the point where you feel I’m a great contributor and not a liability to our organization?”

If you do that, it might spare your head from rolling– unless you’ve already missed way too many hints.  It costs a lot of time and effort to hire someone and organizations (churches too) often lose lots of momentum when staff changes occur.  So organizations have good reasons to keep you on if they can.  Taking the right approach during the Happy Talk might just save you some pain, salvage your career or ministry, and help you move to the next level of leadership.

In times of recession like these, job security is more important than ever.

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