You know the parable. The one about the lost sheep. With a little creative license, let me retell it for you. A young up and coming shepherd built a large sheep empire. Starting with a couple of sheep (a male and female to be exact) the shepherd cared tenderly for them, meeting their physical needs and protecting them from harm. After some time passed, his flock grew as did his stature in the shepherding community and as did his bank account. You see, many sheep bring more wool to the market than only two. When his impressive flock grew to 100 sheep, the young shepherd became an entrepreneur. He was able to hire a couple of junior shepherds to lead the sheep to water and the grassy leas. And though he did not need to, occasionally, he liked to take a turn at guarding them by night. Yes, he loved making money from his sheep. But even more significant, he really loved his sheep. Each night that he spent with them, he would count each one before retiring to his tent. (Happy that he no longer had to sleep on the cold stony ground) After all, with a hundred sheep, he could afford a tent.
One night, as he counted his blessings…and his sheep, he stopped. Perplexed, he counted again.
After the third time of coming up with the same result, he realized he had lost a sheep. He did not have 100 sheep. There were definitely only 99. All of a sudden he felt fear! The sheep had wandered off alone, away from the others. He knew what he had to do.
The shepherd left the other sheep and searched the rocky crag for one who went missing. Eventually the poor little thing was located, having fallen into a crevice unable to get up the embankment without assistance. The shepherd was able to rescue the lamb and return her to the rest of the fold.
I always used to wonder, “Why would the intelligent, ambitious and caring shepherd leave 99 other sheep just to rescue the one?” Why risk so many to save only one? I mean, he took a big risk, right? The moral of the biblical story is that God loves each of his children so much that each one is just that important to him. And I believe that.
But I also know God is pragmatic as well as loving. The decision to go after the one was not so fraught with risk as supposed. The shepherd’s decision to leave the others was actually sound. Generally, 99 sheep would be safe in the wilderness on their own for awhile, because predators are more likely to attack an individual instead of a group of livestock. Predators like to have an easy meal, having a sense of risk versus reward (just watch all those nature shows where the lions pick off the slowest wildebeest).
i spent some time pondering this parable, as it seemed to me that there is also something to be said in this story about how you treat the things that you value. And there was one other thing that nagged at me about all of this. Why did that sheep wander off? Hadn’t it seen all the wildebeest shows? What would make something leave the safety of numbers to go off alone?
Unless, the sheep didn’t feel like he belonged with the others.
Maybe the sheep didn’t feel valued.
Maybe it was more painful to be a part of a flock than to take the risk and wander off to make it on his own.
I have seen this scenario play out in the real world many times. Especially in the world of Social Work and all other helping professions (therapists, counselors, nurses, teachers………). The ones who are putting themselves on the line to help others, give of themselves over and over. And they need to feel valued. A true helping organization needs cohesion, teamwork and a leader who values each staff for the contribution they bring to the collective mission. When the focus of the organization veers from the underlying mission to only productivity and tasks, the heart of the agency begins to falter.
And, while not every staff in your flock need to hear the words or to feel the appreciation of the leadership, there are those who function much better with that simple validation. I know social workers who would work 16 hour days every day for a leader who regularly and sincerely lets them know that they are valued. And I know some who would give the same measure of themselves with or without appreciation. And I know some who are going to just do the basic minimum whether they feel appreciated or not.
However, it is vital, as leaders, for us to understand that those who need validation and do not get it, are the sheep who will wander off; both literally and figuratively. Think about the dedicated worker on your team, who seems to have detached. Sometimes, you can watch them mentally wander away and other times, they physically leave, unable to bear the feeling of being undervalued.. Their normal drive lessens and their devotion to the mission seems to have dimmed. They are leaving the flock. And you cannot have that! You need those heart-driven staff to complete your team, and cannot afford to lose someone who cares deeply about the agency mission.
As a leader, what do you do? Do you leave the other 99 and take the time to “find” the one that wandered off? Do you look for them? And if you find them stuck in a crevice, do you help them out?
If you are a wise leader, the answer is yes.
But how do you help them out? What is wrong with that staff? How did they get that way? I am going to share a truth you might not want to hear….It’s not them. It’s you.
If you have staff who need validation to continue doing great things, truly seeming to flounder without it; is it your responsibility?
Yes. Simply put. Yes, it is.
Your responsibility as a leader of professionals is to foster development, encourage independence and achieve the agency mission. Everything else you do: assign cases/tasks, prepare reports, monitor activities…etc etc etc are secondary to the primary leadership goal of helping your team achieve the mission.
Challenge: Examine your team. Count them all and look for the ones who have wandered off. Are they needing something from you to be successful? Are they not getting it? Examine yourself then. How do you assess the motivational level of your staff? Do you know the ones who need extra validation? Do you show it? Broad-Brush praise only works for those who are intrinsically motivated. “Good job Guys!” Or “Way to go Team” satisfy some team members need for recognition. But as you know your team, you will also know the ones who need a little more. It cost you nothing to be able to show them that you do see their accomplishments. Give specific feedback to them with some one on one time. A simple email, phone call or even a text. “Hey Candice! I noticed how much improvement is being made with the behavior of Johnny Sims. I can tell you are putting in a lot of work with his behavior plan. I just wanted to let you know I see you.”
That’s it. Very simple answer to a complex issue of supervising individuals individually. Because if you had 100 sheep and lost one, you still have 99. But, you may have lost the one who loved the agency mission the most. And believe me, that type of sheet is precious! You cannot afford to lose even one.