Management and Grace
by Dr. Jeffrey D. Yergler


Boman and Deal in their book, Reframing Organizations (2003), make the following observation about management:

The real source of cluelessness is not personality or IQ. It's how we think and make sense of the world around us. Regardless of intellectual wattage, we're out to lunch if we use the wrong ideas for the situation at hand.

When you see a distorted picture, you react the wrong way. But you'll probably stick with erroneous ideas if they're all you have.

The problem is they lead you into trouble and mask their flaws at the same time. (2003, p. 6)

Boman and Deal go on to discuss that managers typically cannot solve managerial dilemmas because they do not have the capacity or willingness to embrace new frameworks. Because the default is set, new ways of motivating are tragically bypassed. The result, inevitably, is that people within the organization remain chronically unmotivated and underproductive.

In The Dilbert Principle, Scott Adams satirically notes, "The most effective workers are systematically moved to the place where they can do the least damage - management" (1996, p. 14). Unfortunately many of these "managers" end-up causing grievous harm because they do not possess the competencies to know how to motivate and encourage employees. Compounding this dilemma is that senior management tends to tolerate these behavioral incompetencies. In the process, their benign neglect contributes toward a precipitous decline in organizational morale.

The key work of management is to continually explore innovative possibilities for effectively motivating and releasing (not suppressing or controlling) employees' entrepreneurial aspirations. One of those possibilities for growth and professional maturation is the application of grace within the sphere of management. The concept and practice of grace and management, when uniformly embraced throughout an organizational culture, holds incredible potential for significantly enhancing morale and performance. However, what sets the application of grace apart from being yet another management tool is that it fundamentally speaks to and motivates the human heart at the deepest core level.

The Critical Need for Management to Understand and Apply Grace

In our day, in this moment in our culture replete with new organizational forms, management and grace belong together. However, because those in management positions do not understand the meaning of grace nor do they trust the application of grace within the manager-employee relationship, nothing is altered at a foundational or philosophical level. What we do understand is that most management practices tend to unfold through leverage, coercion, intimidation, indifference and manipulation. If this is one's view and practice of management, the statement that grace belongs within the purview of management might be taken to mean another means by which management can accomplish managerial or organizational objectives. In short, from this perspective of management philosophy, grace is but a means of getting people to do what management wants them to do. This style of management always has the net effect not only of diminishing quality but also of devaluing the person.

One of the reasons that grace is critical to management is because it requires that management experience change before it seeks change in others. Management and grace is understanding that grace, when personally experienced and rightly understood by those who manage, creates an environment where people seek to thrive, improve and excel. Research has already shown that most people in any organization want to contribute and create value. Yet it is a fundamental truth that for people to contribute and add value, they must first know they are valued. This is certainly no surprise to any manager. The surprise lies in the fact of how value is communicated most effectively in the workplace.

The premise of this paper is that there is no management process that creates value in the human soul and psyche as effectively as the experience of authentic grace in the workplace. Grace has a sustaining power precisely because it speaks to the intrinsic worth of the person. It is the most powerful (and perhaps the most ethical) means of incentivizing available to management. When the manager accesses and affects the intrinsic source of motivation within a person, there is an inevitable impact on performance. This exchange between manager and employee must not only begin with management, it must be an experience of management before it can be translated into an interchange with employees.

Though the prospect of management and grace together might sound attractive, it is a tough sell to senior leadership. This coupling of management and grace, as appealing as it initially sounds to senior level management and corporate leaders, is often summarily uncoupled because the association smacks too much of soft or permissive management. Soft management practices, as any senior manager would argue, produces neither corporate value nor personal esteem. Soft management produces poor results. Grace, so it is assumed, is treating people softly or permissively which effectively diminishes the quality of services and deliverables. It is impossible to deliver the desired objectives in the business enterprise when the performance bar for the employee is lowered by the application of grace.

This is not a new concern by any means. Douglas McGregor (2001) affirmed that traditional management philosophy typically viewed people as naturally indifferent and indolent. In response to this, management chose to apply either hard management practices such as control, leverage, and vigilant supervision or soft management practices characterized by permissiveness and tolerance (McGregor, 2001). Both hard and soft practices, which McGregor called Theory X, were irrelevant, as well as destructive, to organizational morale and performance because neither focused on the fundamental dynamics of personal motivation and professional development. Applying grace, if a management philosophy embraces Theory X, would be considered irresponsible and, ultimately, negative management practice. McGregor goes on to say that both hard and soft practices are irrelevant, as well as destructive, to organizational morale and performance because neither focuses on the dynamics of personal motivation and professional development. Grace, in fact, and I believe McGregor would concur, creates the environment where people can thrive because they are encouraged (or given the opportunity) to pursue their personal growth and enhance their professional competencies.

Unfortunately, the derailing of this critical conversation within management circles is the result of a lack of agreement of an operational definition of grace. What exactly is meant by the word grace, and furthermore, how is grace experienced by both management and employees?

The Meaning of Grace: Where Theology and Management Converge

There are three primary definitions of grace, the last of which applies to the work of management which I am addressing. In the first definition, grace is viewed as a pleasing quality, an attractive character trait ("She moves with grace."). Second, grace is an expression of gratitude or thanks ("He offered to say grace before the meal."). Third, grace is showing favor or goodwill ("Instead of retaliating because of the wrong suffered, she extended grace to her offender."). This act of grace is neither the right of the beneficiary nor the obligation of the benefactor. It is uncoerced favor given from one for the benefit of another.

This last definition of grace is best understood from the vantage point of Judeo-Christian theology and praxis. In theological parlance, grace is the extension of forgiveness, initiated and granted by God, which, when granted, absolves a person of wrongs committed. Furthermore, this action opens the door of new possibilities for future acts of fidelity. This action is not only for the existential benefit of the beneficiary (freedom from guilt and shame, thankfulness and hope for the future) but, at the same time, elicits a response which is manifested through personal change and gratitude to God.

There are two biblical examples that illustrate how grace does and does not work in the context of the manager-employee relationship. The first example is found in the parable of the unmerciful servant in the Gospel of Matthew. I will interpret the parable using the language of management. A senior manager meets one of her department supervisors in the corporate cafeteria. The two were scheduled to meet later in the day. Due to an error of judgment on the part of the supervisor the day before, the senior manager spent considerable time and money remediating the problem. Despite their appointment later that same day, the supervisor apologized profusely and asked repeatedly for another opportunity to make the right decision. The senior manager made sure that the supervisor was aware of the tremendous cost of the mistake to the company and the tremendous effort that had been expended to right the wrong. The supervisor expressed remorse and acknowledged the debt he owed his senior manager. The senior manager, convinced that her supervisor understood both the magnitude of the problem and the exorbitant cost of fixing it, told the supervisor that she would agree to another opportunity to learn from his mistakes and to improve his performance. He was to return to his department and find ways to perfect the process that created the problem in the first place.

Later that same day, as the supervisor walked into his workroom, he ran into one of his direct reports who had, the day prior, made a faulty decision that cost the supervisor both time and money, not to mention a great deal of personal embarrassment. Compared to his own failure in the eyes of his senior manager, the collapse of this direct report was child's play, a minor infraction that paled in comparison to his own failure. Regardless of the differences between their failures (in terms of time and cost to the company), the supervisor yelled vehemently at the direct report, embarrassed him in front of his peers and then fired him on the spot. Later that same afternoon, when the senior manager heard of the supervisor's unreasonable and imprudent action, she was infuriated and marched down to the supervisor's office and fired him on the spot.

The second example comes from the parable of the Good Samaritan in the Gospel of Luke. Again, using the language of management, a middle manager was on his way to a meeting across town. As he walked into the parking lot, he saw his boss laying on the ground, a clear victim of a hit and run accident. He was moaning and thrashing about and clearly needed medical attention. Other employees who were in this manager's department passed by, intentionally looking the other direction. As the middle manager ran toward his boss, scenes flashed across his mind of the cruel and mean-spirited nature of this man. Despite the fact that he was hated and vilified by most everyone who served under him, this man saw his value and knew his potential. The middle manager knew that help was needed quickly and it was imprudent to wait for help to arrive. He ran to the man's side and lifted him into his own car. At the hospital, he called his supervisor's relatives who lived across the country. He waited at the hospital until they arrived. He never left the side of his boss in the interim period. He helped him sip water, eat and otherwise encouraged and inspired him. He cared for him despite the way his boss had treated him. He valued his life. He looked past his mean-spirited demeanor and saw him as a human being in need of care and support. Moreover, he knew that this man could become a valuable leader in the company if he could ever find a way to soften his heart and encourage others. Regardless of how he had been treated, he responded with kindness and support and expected nothing in return.

In the context of management, grace is any act of kindness, courtesy or forgiveness offered to another when kindness, courtesy and forgiveness is either unexpected and/or unmerited. Though an employee might have merited a harsh judgment because of poor performance or a dereliction of duties, he receives instead what he has not merited: another opportunity to demonstrate competency and to perform at a higher level. Grace works from the outside-in (manager to employee, grace absolving personal guilt and shame) and from the inside-out (from employee to the organization, grace enhancing worth and worth then translating to a higher level of performance).

Clearly, grace within the exercise of management has nothing to do with permissiveness. It is not related to slovenly performance, lowered performance standards or excusing irresponsible behavior. Grace is about creating worthiness in people when they feel unworthy and undeserving. Grace, by its nature, affects the human heart and one's sense of self worth. Affect the self-worth of the person, and you help generate critical internal synergy from which springs the actual desire to be different and do differently. If the manager's responsibility is to increase output and the quality of the deliverables as well as to motivate people to overcome failure, then it makes perfect sense to first provide intrinsic motivation. To put it another way, grace applied thoughtfully, legitimately and ethically on the part of the manager, enhances the value of the person which then impacts the quality of the work produced. Conversely, when management exercises oversight and accountability without any expression of grace, it creates an environment of chronic low morale and, therefore, low (inadequate or insufficient) performance.

When Grace Must be Withheld

There are situations in which management's decision to exercise grace is inappropriate. If grace is not connected to expected results, its application can be destructive to both the employee, the manager and the organization. In the context of the organization, grace, while unconditional in its application (the recognition that the human spirit thrives and feeds upon authentic expressions of grace in the face of our imperfect humanity), always seeks a return on its investment within the context of the organization. The work of grace should always result in a changed attitude and performance. In this sense, grace is considered costly in that it expects a response from the recipient of grace.

If grace does not bring about changed behavior and performance, it then becomes an expression of cheap grace; while it is gladly received, there is no intent on the part of the recipient to change behavior patterns or performance levels. In this case, from the perspective of management, the employee puts himself or herself in a very tenuous position. When confronted with an employee that does not change or improve when given the opportunity, an impending termination or reassignment is on the horizon.

There is another scenario to which management must pay careful attention. Given the situation where an employee attempts to change but is unable due to an inadequate portfolio of skills and competencies, grace must be expressed by redirecting (instead of terminating) the employee to a different position within the organization in order to improve performance. The act of redirection in light of repeated failure (despite valiant efforts to increase performance) can be also be a clear manifestation of grace.

Why Grace is Effective in Changing Performance

The human person ultimately longs to be valued and esteemed. Much of what we do in life is motivated by deep inner drive to discover and define a sense of transcendent worth and value in the immediate and long-term contexts of our lives. Performance is not enhanced by external drivers such as organizational environment, money, or positional status but by human-relational processes that communicate meaning and value to the employee. Create healthy relational processes between management and workers, and you create value which then generates motivation.

Grace responds to a fundamental understanding that lives within every human: we know ourselves to be imperfect and flawed, insecure and vulnerable. In the workplace we fabricate barriers and walls that keep others from discovering our vulnerabilities and use every ounce of energy possible to keep those barriers impenetrable. Our attempts to hide our weaknesses not only keep us imprisoned, they also create fear. This is the fear that we will be found-out or revealed for who we are. Management's exercise of grace, using Deming's parlance, actually "drives fear out of the workplace" by acknowledging our flawed and imperfect humanity. Counterintuitive indeed! It sends a message that the organization is a safe (not permissive or overly tolerant) place while at the same time expecting results and increased performance levels.

In the organization which seeks to operate from a platform of grace, managing by grace means that those who are managed exist in an ongoing (as compared to episodic) relationship of grace with management. Grace responds to failures not as ends in themselves but as a means to a much greater end of adding value to the person first and the business second. Grace is management giving something away to the person for the benefit of the person. It creates the context for the growth of worth and esteem. Managing by grace must fundamentally be an altruistic expression of management, that is, it must be given for the sake of the gift itself. While grace seeks a positive response, it can never be reduced to merely a transaction. Ultimately, the giving of grace on the part of management sets loose a deeper work within the person.

Establishing a Culture of Grace: The Work of Senior Management

Like any management philosophy, the coupling of grace and management must be a core value among senior management if it is to have any credibility and utility within the organizational culture. Managers who have never experienced grace find it difficult, if not impossible, to integrate grace within their exercise of management, so also senior level management cannot establish grace as a core value within the culture if they do not value and understand the work of grace within themselves and the organization. In short, if senior leadership chooses to exclude or significantly undervalue grace as a core value in all down-line management, it will be impossible for grace to be embedded into the organizational culture of management at any down-line level.

The "yes" to grace as a corporate value emerges when the level of pain, frustration and professional stifling within the culture begins to show itself. As systemic acrimony and disillusionment becomes apparent, senior leaders, if they are at all concerned about the rising tide of dissonance and the manner in which this dissonance infects corporate identity, morale and performance, will ask difficult questions about the fundamental nature of corporate-wide management beliefs and practices.

The difficulty of this type of evaluation by senior leaders cannot be underestimated. Not only is it hard work evaluating management philosophies at work in a given culture, it is equally difficult identifying management attitudes and practices that are inimical to organizational momentum and destructive to personal esteem and worth. Yet this is precisely the point where the tectonic plates of management philosophies within organizations begin their arduous process of shifting.

General Axioms of Truth About Grace in the Organization

  • Grace requires wisdom in that it does have limits and boundaries. We must know when the application of grace only perpetuates poor (and irreversible) performance.

  • Grace must always be accompanied by specific outcomes for improvement.

  • Grace goes against the grain of retribution and retaliation that people are most familiar with in the workplace.

  • Grace requires courage (to exercise it) and vision (to see the potential that can be teased out through its application).

  • Grace recognizes, even affirms, our human frailty and imperfection (which is crucial to our own liberation) while it also honors our desire to mature, improve, and become more competent and responsible.

  • Graceless managers are toxic to any environment. These managers stifle performance by creating a culture of fear and retribution.

  • Grace can also mean removing those employees who are chronic underperformers and substandard achievers, which frees them to find a greater sense of fulfillment and esteem in another organizational setting. It is destructive to keep employees in place when they are continually underperforming even after receiving reprimand after reprimand.

  • Grace teaches and motivates.

  • Grace is an antidote to the emptiness, discouragement, abandonment, disillusionment, hopelessness and helplessness that pervades our organizations, our culture and our world.

The Sequential Movements of Grace Within the Sphere of Management

First, grace must be part of the leadership culture and embedded within the organization's management philosophy.

Second, grace must be experienced and understood within the lives of those who assume positions of management.

Third, management must be knowledgeable of the appropriate application of grace within the context of the workplace.

Fourth, management must exercise grace in the appropriate situations.

Fifth, management must be prepared to defend and explain the application of grace to senior management, management colleagues and need-to-know employees.

Sixth, management should seek the increase and cultivation of grace among management and within the larger corporate culture.

The Schematic of Grace Through the Work of Management


Bolman, L. G., & Deal, T.G. (2003). Reframing Organizations: Artistry, choice, and leadership. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

McGregor, D. M. (2001). The human side of enterprise. In J. M. Shafritz & J. S. Ott (Eds.), Classics of organization theory, 5th Ed. (pp. 179-184). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. (Reprinted from The human side of enterprise by D. M. McGregor, Management Review, November, 1957, New York: American Psychological Association)

Dr. Jeffrey D. Yergler lives in University Place, Washington and is Principle for Integer Leadership Consulting ( Dr. Yergler can be reached at or by phone at: 253-565-3039.

Many more articles in Creative Leadership in The CEO Refresher Archives


Copyright 2004 by Jeffrey D. Yergler. All rights reserved.

Current Issue - Archives - CEO Links - News - Conferences - Recommended Reading