Unsaid Expectations: The Surefire Way to Kill Staff Morale


…The Surefire Way to Kill Staff Morale

Early in my ministry days, I was in a staff meeting with my mentor and other people who had been in ministry for decades. And my mentor said, “Are you picking up somebody else’s monkey?” My immediate thought was to laugh; what on earth what he was talking about? But then he got to the heart of what he meant. 

A monkey represents a task or responsibility. All too often, we pick up someone else’s or assume they’ll pick up ours without ever asking them to. This almost always, naturally, results in chaos. The solution is to keep track of your own monkeys, stop picking up others’ and make sure you’re clear when you need help with a monkey.

I know it’s silly, but this analogy has stuck with me through the years, especially now as a senior pastor. I see the impact of unsaid expectations – and their aftermath – all the time in the church. So how do we make sure we’re abundantly clear in our expectations and keep staff morale high? Here are the two main lessons I’ve learned. 

Aim to Overcommunicate and Never Assume

As pastors, we’re busy people (you can laugh at that understatement along with me). So sometimes we get caught up in all we’re doing and forget to pass on key information to the people who are helping us do it. We figure they know us well enough, and know our mission, so they must know what’s expected of them in their supporting role. But this can really backfire, create tension and end poorly. 

Consider what the bible tells us about communicating. Proverbs 18:13 says that answering before listening is “folly and shame.” Proverbs 29:20 doesn’t mince words, either, stating: “Do you see someone who speaks in haste? There is more hope for a fool than for them.” And James 1:19 echoes these sentiments, too: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” 

I look at these verses as a clear message that I must also be slow in my thinking and in forming expectations, as well. Before assuming that my associate pastor knows what I want him to do in our next bible study, I need to speak with him directly and share my expectations. When I do this, my team members exceed my expectations time and again. But when I don’t, the monkeys get loose and wreak havoc. It also creates more work, and even more – you guessed it – monkeys for others. And nobody wants that. 

Also, keep in mind that overcommunicating doesn’t end up becoming micromanaging. The goal is to be honest and clear in your expectations upfront, while still trusting your team to execute on the task themselves. 

Set Practical Communication Measures

So, how do you take this concept and make it practical? I’ve found that carving out time for expressing expectations makes it easier for me to do, and also makes my team members more receptive to hearing my expectations too. 

At my church, our leadership team meets a half-hour before our Sunday service for this very purpose. We spend 15 minutes or so getting on the same page, laughing and joking, and of course, we pray together and prepare for the service ahead. It’s in these Sunday morning meetings that I go out of my way to share my heart for the day. I tell my team where God’s leading me with that particular message and my expectations for each of them. 

For example, I might be planning on an altar call during the service, and I know I’ll need to be praying with people up front after the service ends. So I’ll tell two of my leaders that I need them to be at the door to speak to others and say goodbye to everyone. I can’t just assume they’ll know to do that. 

Our church team also uses a Slack channel so we can stay in touch during the week. This makes our communication regular, visible and accessible. It also helps other staff members see others’ questions, help each other out with answers and remain on the same page. And if anyone on our team isn’t clear about their role or my expectations, I tell them I want them to speak up. 

Assuming that others know what you’re thinking will lead you into a den of crazed, unaccounted for monkeys every time. But overcommunicating and setting yourself up for regular communication will help you keep the peace, and stay focused on your mission. 

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