Faithlife Sermons

Criticism - giving & receiving

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Given the less than stellar models of criticism prevailing in society, we need a healthy definition of criticism along with practical guidance for giving and receiving it. In an April 1st article for BusinessWeek, Dr. Bruce Weinstein gives us exactly that. Here's how he describes the value of criticism:

"The goal of true criticism is to help someone be the best they can be…When criticism is done appropriately, the person who has been criticized will understand what he or she has done wrong and will feel inspired to make a change for the better. Not only should we not avoid being criticized, we should embrace criticism because it is the only way we can continue to grow professionally and personally."}}}

The following practical tips are intended to flesh out the ways we can begin to embrace and wisely employ criticism as leaders.


Encouragement helps criticism to land.

Before a pilot lands an aircraft, she goes through a series of procedures to make the plane touch down as smoothly as possible. The pilot gently drops altitude, gradually cuts back on speed, and lowers landing gear at just the right moment. If these steps are handled incorrectly, the ride is certain to be turbulent and may end up in disaster.

For criticism to "land" well, it must be preceded by encouragement. Leaders deafen their people to criticism when they neglect to encourage them regularly. If leaders are silent after victory but outspoken during defeat, then team morale plummets. It's difficult to stay open to suggestions for improvement under what feels like a constant barrage of negativity.

Criticism should avoid being personal

Criticism should avoid being personal, but it should have the support of a personal relationship. To prevent personal insult, leaders should carefully pinpoint specific actions or ideas to criticize. People can accept negative feedback of their performance, but they bristle when they feel their personhood is under attack.

Leaders effectively deliver constructive criticism when they have taken the time to acquaint themselves with those they lead. Without relational connection, the person receiving criticism may feel their leader has a personal vendetta against them. However, if they are convinced their leader respects their efforts and values their growth, they are more likely to be receptive to tough words.


Selectively filter criticism

The higher up a person goes in leadership, the more criticism he or she will receive—guaranteed. While some criticism builds up, other criticism tears down. Leaders must learn to distinguish between the two.

The acid test of criticism is made up of three questions:

  1. Does the criticism have basis in fact?
  2. Is the criticism offered constructively (in an effort to help)?
  3. Does the critic have the insight and perspective to speak credibly?

When all three questions can be answered, "yes," then a leader should take the criticism seriously and weigh its meaning. If any question can be answered, "no," then a leader is best served to let the criticism go in one ear and out the other.

Avoid Extremes

A leader who routinely dismisses criticism chokes off vital feedback. When leaders ignore or suppress opposing views, they miss the opportunity to sharpen their ideas. Wise leaders want to be challenged, not coddled. They surround themselves with voices that speak what they need to hear instead of saying only what they want to hear.

On the other extreme, leaders with thin skin are rattled by all manner of criticism. They agonize over the opinions of people whose input is uninformed and unintended to be helpful. They allow second-guessing to cut into their confidence. Ultimately, such a leaders cede authority by subjecting their decision-making to the approval of outsiders.

Listen, Listen, Listen

Sincere criticism rarely comes without a morsel of truth. For a leader, the trick is to stay open when confronted with negative feedback. When criticized, people are tempted to react defensively, angrily, or from a place of hurt. With emotions swirling about inside, it can be difficult to keep listening and to absorb critical comments.

Those who gain the most out of criticism hold their tongue and control their emotions in order to gain access to hard truths. By listening and remaining objective, they grow increasingly self-aware and improve their leadership.

The Rules of Fair Play

When you want to criticize someone:

1. Begin by finding something you like or appreciate about the person you're about to criticize. This is not only fair, but will also make the person more likely to be receptive to what you have to say.

2. Focus on what that person has said or done, not on him or her personally. Only the former is relevant and likely to be acknowledged.

3. Conclude by affirming your faith that the other person will consider what you have to say. This is both a respectful way to wrap up the criticism and the best way to ensure that your remarks will be given their due.

When someone criticizes you:

1. Resist the urge to dismiss the critic. Considering what the person has to say will only strengthen your own understanding of the issue you care about.

2. Recognize that you may not be right. You may be unaware of one or more of the facts relevant to your argument, or you may have ignored some of the rules or principles at stake.

3. Realize that ad hominem attacks say more about the person making them than about you. Rather than sink to the level of such attacks, it's wise to ignore them.

Our goal in life can be to bring out the best in others and ourselves, or it can be to puff up our own egos and debase others by exploiting our power over them. If the former is our mission, we would do well to give criticism respectfully and receive it graciously whenever it is offered in good faith.

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