How Truth and Grace Play Out in the Workplace

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Do you prefer grace or truth? When you're in trouble, when you have a problem, when you're hurting and confused, would you rather someone show you kindness or tell you the truth?

It's not an easy question. If I had made a mistake in judgment—I had meant to do right, but I just blew it—I'd want grace. Or if I had acted in anger or selfishness and hurt someone, I'd want grace. I'd want someone to say, "It's OK. I forgive you."

But if my mechanic sees that my brakes are failing or my AC guy discovers that my heater is emitting carbon monoxide, I wouldn't want grace or comfort or someone trying to make me feel good about my situation. I would want to be told the truth about the danger.

What about my doctor? If I'm overweight, not exercising and have high blood pressure, I'd want the truth. I would prefer if he was nice about it, but if he never said, "Rob, you need to make some changes in your lifestyle," I wouldn't think, "He sure is a loving and accepting guy." I'd think, "He's not doing his job. He cares more about my feelings than he does about my health, and that's not what I need from my doctor."

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What do you want in a friend—grace or truth? Would you want someone who is always there to comfort you and take your side? Or would you prefer someone who tells you where you're blowing it and helps you see yourself for who you are?

Responding With Grace

Answering the question can be even trickier in the workplace setting, as it can seem it should be all business. Getting the job done is what we're paid to do, so tell people what they need to know, let them know when they perform well and when they don't, and reward them accordingly. If there were ever a place to emphasize truth over grace, it should be the workplace.

But in following Jesus, you follow the One who came with grace and truth (John 1:14). With Him, it wasn't one instead of the other or one more than the other but grace and truth together in equal measure. That's one of the reasons Jesus so dramatically impacted the lives of the people He encountered when He walked the earth, and it's one of the reasons His ministry and His example continue to transform lives today. He always held grace and truth together.

As followers of Jesus, we have an opportunity to be different in the workplace—different in how we interact with people—and that begins with grace. I speak to about 500 men each week in a ministry we began 13 years ago. Most are upper-middle-class businessmen. Once I asked the men to list the traits of the best leader with whom they had ever worked. What made that leader so exceptional when it came to creating a vision, helping people work together and accomplish their organization's goals? All of the men listed several characteristics of the leader they most admired, but the traits repeated most often fell into three broad categories.

"Competence" was a high value. The leader had to "know his stuff" to command the respect of others and be seen as worthy of trust. Competence was one of the top three but not the highest.

"Character" was second on the list. Answers that fell into this category were responses such as "I knew she would always do the right thing"; "He'd take the blame when our division didn't perform well"; and "She would be honest with a customer even if it meant not getting the sale—and she expected the same out of us."

But the trait that was mentioned more than any other was "compassion." These hard-nosed, bottom-line businessmen said what made their best leaders so impressive and effective was that he was "caring," "concerned about each one of us" or "interested in me and my family." They described the leader as "a great listener," "someone who made time to listen to you and your problems," and "someone who treated you as a person, not as an employee." Some even wrote, "He loved us."

When I shared the results with the group, I jokingly said, "Guys, c'mon. There's no crying in baseball, and there's no loving in business." But there is because there are people in business—real human beings who have hopes, hurts and families; who want to be noticed and appreciated—and who want their lives to matter.

What I have learned about human beings—friends, family members and people at work, whether the man who cleans the toilets or the one who runs the company—is that we all need to be loved, we all respond to kindness, and we all are touched deeply when someone shows us grace.

It can be as simple as noticing when a co-worker is having a difficult time or has failed to perform well and saying to that co-worker, "You're going to have better days. If I can help, let me know." It can be telling someone at work, "You may think this is funny, but I pray for the people I know and I care about. Tonight I'm going to pray for you and your family. Is there anything in particular I can pray for? How are your kids?" You'll be surprised how open people become.

If you have reached some level of success at work, asking a younger co-worker to lunch will make a big impact as you inquire about his plans, take an interest in him and discuss what he hopes to accomplish. Creating an informal mentoring relationship where you help someone with his career and encourage him to balance his life around what truly matters is a remarkable gift of grace. Young people are looking for mentors—caring people they can trust. Why shouldn't you be the person to fulfill that role rather than someone who thinks life is about nothing more than professional success and career advancement?

Acts of grace and compassion are particularly powerful in the workplace because they are so unexpected. Love is powerful enough to make people wonder why you are the way you are. Grace is powerful enough that others might even listen when you say the reason is Jesus.

Telling the Truth

Truth is also important. In the business world, the truth is often told without any concern for another's feelings. It's the truth described by Sir Richard Needham when he wrote, "The man who is brutally honest enjoys the brutality quite as much as the honesty. Possibly more." That's not the kind of truth we saw in Jesus, and it's not the kind of truth that people should receive from us.

But there are times when there is nothing as helpful as truth spoken the right way. When I was a young associate pastor, the church I served made plans to build an additional classroom building, as our new church was growing rapidly.

I was in charge of Christian education for children and adults, so the building committee asked me to determine how much space we needed in our next building. Together with my education committee, we determined our needs and how many square feet the building would require.

When I presented our plan to the building committee, they responded by telling us that our proposal was more than the church could afford. The committee asked me to come back in a week with a different plan and gave me a budget to work with this time.

Before I tell you the rest of the story, I need to remind you I was young because, to this day, what happened next is rather embarrassing. I went back to my Christian education team and told them what the building committee had asked us to do. We looked at the parameters they had given us and came to the conclusion that what they were asking us to do made no sense. We decided that we should just wait until the church could afford to "do it right."

That's what I told the building committee when I attended their meeting a week later. Respectfully, I told them that my committee and I thought we would make due until the church was able to build a building that would take care of our long-term needs. The chairperson asked if I had prepared a plan with the information they had requested. "Well, no, because we just didn't see the point," I said. The chairperson politely reiterated the committee's request and asked me to have that option ready in two weeks for their next meeting.

As we were leaving that night, one of the men on the committee asked to speak with me. A good friend and the managing partner of a large law firm, he had practically no church background when he and his wife started attending our church and I had led him to faith in Christ.

He was a large man who towered over me as he said, "Rob, I need to tell you that if you were my employee, I'd be firing you right now. The people on that committee are busy, and they work hard. Instead of being at home with their families tonight, they came to the church to listen to a report they had asked you to bring, and you didn't do it. Nobody is paying you to think you're smarter than everyone else. Nobody is paying you to be arrogant. Nobody is paying you to waste their time. If you worked for me at my law firm, I'd be telling you to clean out your desk."

For a second I thought, "Man, I led you to Christ. Before you knew me, you were self-centered and full of yourself and spiritually lost. Who are you to tell me ... ?" but then I remembered who he was—my friend and one of my greatest encouragers. He was a brother who loved me. And he was someone who was telling me a truth about myself I needed to hear.

That was 30 years ago, but I have never forgotten what he said. It was a great gift that has served me well through the years. There have been other times when I've been asked by a committee to work on a plan I didn't think made much sense and many occasions when a senior pastor told me to do something I saw little value in doing.

But the truth my friend spoke that night has stuck with me: Be humble, be a servant, show others the respect you desire to be shown and be faithful in the tasks you've been given. I am as grateful for the truth he spoke to me after that building committee meeting as I am of any act of kindness I have ever received. It was exactly what I needed to be a better employee and grow more into the image of Jesus.

In the workplace, some of us have trouble telling the truth. Sometimes we shy away from confrontation, possibly because we don't want to hurt someone's feelings. But by not telling that person what he needs to hear, we may not hurt him, but we also don't help him. Others of us will wait until we are frustrated and angry to tell someone how he needs to change and improve. Then the truth comes out as an explosion that does more damage than good.

People need both grace and truth. Real growth requires both. Paul taught the Ephesians this when he wrote: "But, speaking the truth in love, we may grow up in all things into Him, who is the head, Christ Himself" (Eph. 4.15).

Which do people prefer—grace or truth? Most of us want grace, but we know that we need truth. Those who follow Jesus have in our Lord the perfect example of how grace and truth should be combined. And if we speak and relate to people the way He did, whether in our homes, in our churches or in our places of employment, we can be a source of comfort, growth and encouragement to others.  

Rob Renfroe is the author of The Trouble With the Truth: Balancing Truth and Grace and A Way Through the Wilderness: Growing in Faith When Life Is Hard (both Abingdon Press). He serves as pastor of discipleship at The Woodlands United Methodist Church in Houston and is leader of the men's Bible study Quest, attended by over 300 men. He is also president of Good News, a national organization committed to the doctrinal integrity and spiritual renewal of The United Methodist Church.

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