Thermostats vs. Thermometers

When I woke up this morning the heat was off in my apartment. I, like many of you, I’m sure, prefer to wake up feeling warm and comfortable rather than cold and shivering. Alas, it was a shivering sort of morning.

We share heat in our apartment building, which keeps our bills low, which in turn keeps my wife happy. I went out to the hall to investigate why I woke up so frigid and discovered that the thermostat had been set way too low and in a strange location. The hall it was mounted in felt perfectly comfortable, which is why it didn’t signal for the heat to come on. I had to set the temperature quite a bit higher for the radiators to start rumbling, but soon it was cozy in our home again.

All of this got me thinking about the leadership analogy of thermostats vs. thermometers. It’s not a new idea, but conversations surrounding this topic tend to be brief and one-sided. I think there are three things that we, as leaders, need to consider, digest, and revisit often with regard to this topic.

1. Distinguishing Between Thermostats and Thermometers

I love this concept so much because it makes so much sense and it resonates so deeply, yet it really is quite simple. The idea is this: a thermometer reads the temperature of a room, often simply displaying the information with little-to-no frills. A thermostat, on the other hand, sets the temperature of a room, determining the changes that need to happen to produce the right temperature.

The idea is that we leaders need to be the thermostats in our organizations, setting the temperature of each environment and establishing culture. As I mentioned before, this isn’t a new idea, but it is an essential one to keep in mind. At a Catalyst One Day I attended recently, Craig Groeschel reminded us that we set culture by our actions, not our words–this is thermostat 101! If what we do determines the proverbial “temperature” of our organizations and, thus, the way our team members will conduct themselves, we have to be very careful how we act. Our actions have to follow our words and be true to what we’re preaching.

What it means to function as a thermostat will change depending on your role. As a worship leader on a Sunday morning, this means praying and preparing, creating the proper environment, and setting the energy level in service. For a church or business leader, this means living out the core values of your organization and helping your volunteers/employees to own them as well. Regardless of the situation you find yourself in, the point is to create the atmosphere, rather than exist at someone else’s temperature.

I’m not the first to talk about this idea, so I won’t pretend to be the authority. There are plenty of posts out there that go further into this idea and give more specific examples (I really like the contrasting statements at the end of this one) so I’d encourage you to look into this more.

This is where I have to part with ways with all those who’ve written before me; the conversation always stops after this first point, but I believe it goes so much further.

2. Understanding the Relationship Between Thermostats and Thermometers

This is where the conversation tends to break down. Leadership gurus will talk to you all day long about the difference between thermostats and thermometers; their main argument centers on how thermometers merely reflect the temperature back to you, whereas thermostats are able to change the temperature. Moreover, they say, a thermostat knows when to turn on/off the heat/air to get the room to the right temperature.

At this point, I have to ask you what may be considered a silly question: how does the thermostat know?

How does it know what appropriate action to take in order to change the temperature in the room, and specifically to get it to the desired setting?

Now, I have to make an equally silly observation: thermostats have thermometers built-in!

I know, duh, right? But think about it: the only way a thermostat can know and make changes to the temperature is if it has a thermometer providing it continual feedback. To put it another way, thermostats have built-in feedback loops. They are continually receiving up-to-date and accurate feedback in order to make the appropriate modifications to the environments they control.

Without the thermometer, the thermostat will continue to demand the specified temperature without knowing how the room has already reacted. The thermostat needs to listen to the thermometer, or the system doesn’t work.

The same should be true for us, and I say “should” on purpose. We need to build feedback loops into our leadership so that we know how the room is reacting to our changes. Often our favorite leadership experts will tell you that we, the thermostats, shouldn’t listen to the lowly thermometers, simply telling us it got warm. I must, however, urge you to consider the implications of that ideology; if we ignore the thoughts and feelings of those in our charge, we will quickly resemble a tyrant more closely than a leader.

I heard Simon Sinek speak at a conference recently and he defined leadership this way: managers are concerned about results, but leaders are concerned about the people who produce the results. Think about your definition of a thermostat–which definition are you closer to? To set the “temperature” of excellence in your organization is not a bad thing, unless it comes at the expense of your people. Setting the “temperature” of healthy conflict is not a bad thing unless, as Patrick Lencioni wrote about in 5 Dysfunctions of a Team, your team currently lacks trust.

We need feedback in order to evaluate the changes in temperature we’ve already made, and to make additional changes to keep the room at our preferred level. How you go about getting feedback is up to you, but if I can give you some direction, input equals buy-in. Want your team to get on board with the changes you’ve made? Ask them how they feel about it. Want to know what the church thinks of the new lights? Ask the youth group and the little old ladies. Concerned why people aren’t singing the new songs? Ask various members of the congregation, not just the other members of your worship team.

Seek out feedback. Seek out wisdom. Build feedback loops into your systems. Regardless of your application, you need to know what’s happening around you in order to make the right decisions. The last thing I want to talk about is making the right decisions for the right people.

3. Managing The Tension in the Rest of the House

Going back to my story from this morning: even though it was cold in my bedroom, the hall that housed the thermostat was perfectly comfortable. It would be easy for me to wonder if the thermostat was malfunctioning, but the evidence says it was working just fine.

It was listening to its thermometer. It was using that feedback to keep that room at the right level. The problem is the thermostat was paying attention to its own room and ignoring the rest of the house.

How could that thermo-pair really know what was happening in my apartment, or the other 5 in our building? Does it know how much heat the 2 on the top floor are capturing? Does it know how much of my precious warmth is fleeing through our ancient 10 foot windows? Does it truly have that wide of a perspective and understanding?

It is too easy for us as leaders to do the same thing as the aforementioned thermo-pair in our own ministries and organizations. We may actually do a good job of being a thermostat, we may even go further and listen to our thermometer, but we fail when we decide to limit our field of view.

The children’s director makes new check-in rules that contradict other church policies; the worship leader says it’s not a big deal if worship team members miss the sermon; the parking team saves spots for team leaders to honor them, forcing guests to walk further.

All of these changes may accurately represent the values of these teams. They may have even been met with overwhelming approval from members of the individual teams. But what about the rest of the house? As leaders, the temperature changes we make must represent the whole heart of the church, not just the part that beats for us.

We love a lot of great phrases at Kingsway, but one we say often is: what we’re a part of is bigger than the part we play. We may be on different teams, but we can’t lose sight of the fact that we are all a part of the same church! On the Worship Arts Team, we specifically try to reinforce this idea by avoiding our own mission statement. We have the same mission as the rest of the church: helping people find and follow Jesus. Everything we do has to come back to this one central, immovable idea. We have 4 Values that speak specifically to the work we do, but our mission, and therefore the actions we take and decisions we make must all line up with that same statement.

How are your decisions affecting your whole church? Are they reinforcing the ultimate mission of the church, or demanding change with no room for feedback? Change is always very, very hard and I do not mean to imply that it should all be sunshine and roses, but you need to have a perspective of the whole body: is this change helpful or harmful? Am I pushing people toward Christ or away from Him?

A Tension to be Managed, Not a Problem to be Solved

I’ll leave you with an idea from a guy some of you may not be fond of, but that doesn’t make it less true: some things are tensions to be managed, not problems to be solved. The thermostat/thermometer conversation has been around a while already, and it will continue to stick around because it is a hard thing to pin down.

When should we be more forceful in creating change and when should we be more flexible and responsive to feedback? These are the questions that drive us back to the original Source of our leadership. If we are abiding in Him, He will give us all the direction we need.

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