Guilt or Grace

Which culture characteristic animates your advancement team’s efforts?  While there are a number of ways to assess team culture, assessing your team’s placement on the “Guilt or Grace Continuum” can lead to helpful understandings.

In the Guilt Culture, the fundamental assumption is that an organization gets better when problems or gaps in performance are identified and specific individuals are assigned blame.  People’s shortcomings, limitations, and lesser strengths are the focus of discussion – often surreptitiously.  Because talking about people and their deficiencies is a hallmark of the Guilt Culture and because most people want to appear to be nice, another hallmark of this culture choice is passive-aggressiveness.

“That is not my job,” and “us v. them” mentalities are quickly adopted in the Guilt Culture.  Coalitions are built.  And posturing for political purposes becomes a large component of the work (if not the work).  People working in a culture animated by guilt are dissuaded from being creative and entrepreneurial because making things better isn’t rewarded (being on the “right” coalition is far more rewarding).  Additionally, attempting to become a better professional runs the risk of making others appear lazy or incompetent – a quick way to be a member of the “wrong” coalition.

On the other hand, in the Grace Culture, the fundamental assumption is that an organization gets better when strengths and opportunities are identified and built upon and thoughtful risks are taken.   Organizations operating with a Grace Culture focus on how people can be best positioned to help create better outcomes.  Instead of talking about people’s shortcomings, the greater strengths of individuals are identified and put to good use.

In a Grace Culture, people are encouraged to try new and creative solutions to help meet the mission more effectively and/or efficiently.  And because grace is the foundational characteristic of this culture, when mistakes are made or creative solutions don’t perform as anticipated, the focus isn’t on the failings of people but on the strategy’s shortcomings or the implementation flaws.  Individuals are encouraged to try another thoughtful approach.  In this culture, while there is not perfection, there is excellence – because people who want to get better will be attracted to and will stick with this culture.

If you wonder which culture predominates in your shop, ask yourself which type of question get asked most often:

  • Who is responsible for the poor outcome?   OR  Why did the idea not work?
  • What are the gaps in our performance?  OR  What are we doing exceptionally well, and how can we do more of it?
  • Why is he still here?   OR  What is he really good at?

There are two cultural approaches a team can take when it aims to get better.  One is to assign blame for the identified the problems, the gaps in performance, and the bottlenecks in the process.  The other is to encourage strategic risk taking by playing to people’s greater strengths, identifying opportunities, and chasing creative and innovative ideas.    By focusing more on the second question in each pair above, your team will become more vibrant, fun, and productive.


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