Yes, grace. And, accountability. [for others]
How to love our friends well by giving difficult feedback through the lens of grace.
Some of the best accountability I've ever had came by way of a teapot and some post-it notes.
It was the spring of 2019 and my state FFA officer teammates and I were in the last four months of our term together. We had a set of big decisions to make as a group leading up to our convention and we were spending almost every waking moment together (not to mention living in the same hotel rooms, too). We knew that we would have conflict, and we would need to face it head on. So we strategized, agreed on a plan, and put it into action.
When it comes to balancing grace and accountability externally, we can use some of the same guidance as internally—grace for the past, accountability for the future—but when we add other people to the mix, it gets a little more complex. Have you ever had a friend call you out for an action you know was wrong, but they had an arrogant attitude that made you want to disregard the advice altogether? Or maybe it's that you asked someone to hold you accountable but all they give you is grace because it's easier than standing firm. Regardless, we know that offering the right amount of grace and accountability is challenging. That's where my state officer teammates come in. They taught me that it's a game of trust, discernment, and directness.
The strategic plan? It was a teapot we had sitting in our office (why we had a teapot in our office is a story for another time... ask me later), a stack of post-it notes, and an hour on our calendar once every two weeks. None of us were inclined to react immediately and directly if something a teammate did bothered us, but we knew we couldn't just ignore those concerns, either. The post-it system, as simple as it seems, gave us time to reflect individually before we decided if something was worth the confrontation. We would drop notes in the teapot throughout the two weeks and when our scheduled meeting came around every other Tuesday afternoon, we'd make tea (not in the same teapot, of course) and sit in a circle in our boardroom. We passed out the post-it notes to whomever they were addressed and then took time to read and reflect silently before going around the table, one by one, and sharing what each note said. The author would own up, elaborate if necessary, and then we'd all discuss as a group how to best use this feedback to improve. It wasn't just for the original receiver of the note; it was a chance for all of us to reflect if we had the same weakness, too.
The foundational reason this system worked was that we had built team trust throughout the first eight months of our year, and we trusted that each note was written thoughtfully, carefully, and with the intention of helping each other grow. When we trust someone as a teammate and friend, we can trust their accountability.
I've never forgotten one particular post-it note that was directed towards me. It was dark pink and written in my teammate Sophie's neat cursive. "Miriam, you can't die on every mountain." As soon as I read it, I knew it was spot on. I had a tendency to pick a strong opinion in almost every decision (from t-shirt colors to our opening session script), yet I would say "I'm not going to die on this mountain" when in actuality I did plan to stubbornly hold my ground. It made my opinions less valuable when I felt the need to assert them everywhere. Here's where Sophie's discernment showed up: it wasn't that she didn't like my opinions, or that she didn't want me to express myself. Before she dropped that note into the teapot, she had already worked out internally if it was her problem or mine. She did it objectively and came to the conclusion that she wasn't being overly sensitive. The best way for her to help me was to point out something that I likely knew about myself but didn't want to admit.
Before we approach someone with feedback, we should first ask the critical question of "is this a me thing or a them thing?" It's entirely possible it's an us thing: maybe we are too easily offended, have created a set of false assumptions based on a brief interaction, or simply found ourselves in a bad mood that day. Many of our problems with other people are actually problems with ourselves; we'll solve a lot more, sooner, if we first find out how we've contributed to it. If we discern that the problem is, in fact, not just with us, that's when we can approach the individual in question with an attitude of grace and humility.
After I processed the words on Sophie's post-it note, I asked her and the rest of the team to share some examples and then help me find ways to overcome the "die on every mountain" mentality I'd fostered in myself. Her direct honesty helped me see immediately what I needed to work on, and the team's in-depth feedback and suggestions helped me to strategize and distinguish which opinions were worth defending valiantly. She told me specifically what the concern was, and owned up that it was her who wrote it. This transparency and frankness additionally helped strengthen the mutual trust on our team. If she had gone to Twitter to sound off about her one teammate that was stubbornly committed to opinions or complained to the rest of our team about me, it would have been detrimental to our group's dynamic. Instead, she came straight to me, along with our team, thus bringing the problem to a place where we could solve it.
Directness is my greatest weakness. It's easier to complain everywhere except the one place where accountability will actually make a positive difference: directly with the individual who causes us concern. If we can learn to overcome this tendency, we will find ourselves creating productive dialogue in a way that is meaningful to both parties involved.
Grace-filled accountability that lasts
Recently, my National FFA Officer teammates and I were included in an important and potentially very opinionated discussion with other decision-makers in our organization. As the meeting began and I started to feel heated about the topics at hand, my mind traveled back to that pink post-it note with neat cursive, and I wrote at the top of the page in my open notebook these words: "DON’T DIE ON EVERY MOUNTAIN.” (Yes, I wrote it in all caps. That’s how much I needed the reminder.)
Because of how Sophie and our team approached accountability with grace, I'm still implementing lessons from two years ago into my life and leadership. We loved each other too much to not hold one another to a higher standard, as often the best way to love our friends is to humbly help them become better versions of themselves. Let's seek to leverage trust, discernment, and directness in our relationships the way that Sophie did.
Who’s someone in your life who holds you accountable with grace? Let us know in the comments or on social media by tagging @miriamrosah and @nffaevp and using the hashtags #EmbracingComplexity and #FFA21.