The Give and Take of Criticism

Giving constructive criticism is tricky.  We can hesitate to criticize because we are intimidated to do so or wrestle with feeling “judge not lest you be judged”.  Or we can slide over into the other ditch and become bold and too matter of fact with criticism, becoming blunt pushing too many buttons with results that are less than positive. Both responses are unhealthy. How do you give constructive criticism without being a jerk? How do you constructively criticize someone’s work or behaviour without it coming across as a personal attack?

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Confronting with Excellence

I have always disliked confrontation and every time I am nervous and have to force myself to do it. I thought that after a while I’d get used to it, but I still battle those feelings, even after 20 years of being a Senior Pastor. To be honest, I think that fear is healthy. I think anyone who likes criticism is unhealthy. We should hate it. But, with that being said, I have learned to hate the results of NOT confronting situations or people when it needs to happen MORE than actually having to do it. It’s unhealthy to like confrontation, but it is even more unhealthy to avoid it altogether because you fear it so much.

Set Clear Expectations

I think the most important thing you can do as a leader is create a healthy culture of accountability. So that constructive criticism is normal, expected, and healthy. This means I must have 3 things in place.

  1. Failure is penalized;
  2. Success is rewarded; and
  3. Mediocrity is challenged.

Without these three things in place, a culture will be dysfunctional. It all starts with having clear expectations. That means clear goals with clear timelines. The clearer you are with your expectations and desire results the more leverage you have as a leader to hold your team accountable. In fact, if your expectations are crystal clear, then your team should hold themselves accountable. I like to say, that if I am leading right with clear expectations, then when I need to correct an employee, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to them. They should already be aware that they fell short and need correcting but how you correct them makes all the difference.

I have extensively studied how to confront and hold my staff and key leaders accountable. It really is an art and it must be done with excellence, both for the health of the relationship with your leaders as well as for the health of the organization. To me, the foundation of healthy confrontation is safety. When the other party feels frightened or nervous or otherwise unsafe, you can’t talk about anything. But, if you can create safety, you can talk with almost anyone, about almost anything.

I have learned that people feel unsafe when they believe one of two things:

  1. You don’t respect them; and
  2. You don’t care about their goals.

So the question is, what can I do to ensure the other person does not feel disrespected even though you are about to talk about a problem. And, what can I do to let them know that my intentions are pure—that my goal is to solve a problem that will make things better for both of us. I have to start with what is important to both of us—not just what’s important to me.

This can be complicated further because in the workplace today we have multiple generations. Each generation comes with their own baggage and expectations, so the key is to understand those expectations and natural tendencies and then establish a crystal clear culture within your organization based on your expectations as the leader.  

You can create your own sub-culture within your organization that is different from the culture in society. This is a healthy thing, I believe. And the clearer you are with what that culture is and what your standards are, the easier it will be to keep each generation working together and in the same way regardless of their natural differences. When establishing a culture, you must remember that what you tolerate will become your standard. So make sure you establish clear boundaries and then enforce those boundaries with healthy accountability. Reward what you want repeated and correct what you want changed.

What you tolerate will become your standard. Click To Tweet
Wait 24hrs

Nicole Lindsay, writes for forbes.com.   Recently she wrote an article entitled:  Taking Constructive Criticism like a Champ”.  In it she recommends that when you’re on the receiving end of criticism, it’s best to “stop your first reaction”. The same can be true for the one about to deliver criticism. 

I try to wait to confront for at least 24 hours after the problem presented itself to rid myself of as many of the explosive emotions as I can. This way, I can be frank and stick to the facts rather than drift and say things I’ll regret later because I’m too worked up. 

Establish a Plan

During that 24 hours, I establish a plan. Sometimes the one giving the criticism delivers the criticism inappropriately.  Maybe the timing was awkward, or the wording was abrupt or the person giving the criticism didn’t have all their facts straight.  

I prepare for the meeting and write out as much of what I want to cover in the meeting as I can, in the order I want to deliver it. I have made my biggest mistakes in confrontation when I tried to wing it in a meeting without properly preparing with this process. 

We need to remember that excellence in confrontation is a learned skill. I don’t think this comes naturally for anyone. I’d highly recommend our listeners read the book “Crucial Accountability” as a starter on how to confront with excellence. The best way to prepare yourself for a confrontation is to, by yourself, have a meeting before the meeting to clearly write out a plan for the meeting. The clearer you are in defining the problem and the corresponding solution, the better the meeting will go.

Don’t Play Games

You may be familiar with the practice of sandwiching constructive criticism between compliments in areas where the individual is working well. Games like the sandwich method are often way more destructive than helpful. The key is to get right to the point. The vast majority of the time, when I need to confront someone, they already know something is wrong or that this is going to be a serious talk, so just get to the point. Start the conversation with “I want to talk about this problem”. It’s also important to clearly define the problem to yourself BEFORE the meeting so that you can communicate it as clear as possible to the person you are confronting. Conflict is the space between what I expected and what I experienced.  So, I must define that space. The best way to define it is to start by clearly defining what I expected.

Conflict is the space between what I expected and what I experienced. Click To Tweet
Clearly Define the Problem

What happens when you can identify the problem but can’t identify an immediate solution? The best way to find a solution is to clearly define the problem by again, defining what I expected and then comparing that to what we are experiencing. If I am unclear as to what the solution is to change the results, then I will confront the problem, not the person, and ask the person in charge for a meeting to brainstorm possible solutions. I have done this multiple times, with a number of staff and departments. The problem in results is not always the leaders fault. Many times it is a systems problem rather than a leadership problem. When that’s the case, then I help the leader identify the problem and aid them in solving it. Then, next time, they will identify it quicker and solve it themselves without coming to me.

At the close of the confrontation, I aim to develop win-win plans. These are plans that are going to benefit both of us. They often begin by remembering who does what by when and then who will follow-up.

Sometimes an employee may misjudge a friendly relationship with their leader by thinking that that relationship won’t be tested. When that’s the case, and the friendly leader delivers constructive criticism, the employee feels the friendly relationship has been jeopardized. Some leaders suggest not being friends with your employees so that this never happens, but I don’t believe that is wise at all. I think that it is very possible to be friends with your direct reports and maintain accountability at the same time. If we are working together on clear objectives and have clear goals—as I have discussed earlier—then accountability can be safe and the relationships can stay close in the midst of accountability. I think a great example of this is a parental relationship with young adult children. There can be a close relationship along with accountability. I think this is healthy.

This is why I also want to deal with ongoing relationship maintenance, so that means making sure that who I confronted is not feeling disrespected and knows that I am desiring to maintain a strong relationship with them. This means pushing past the awkwardness and pursuing relationship despite the feelings involved.

 

On the Receiving End

Receiving criticism is an art as well. Especially when it is in relation to an areas or skill set that you have spent years developing. We must always be asking ourselves what we could be doing better and where we could change. But, with that being said, if you feel that the expectations of you are beyond your ability or gift set to deliver then you must be very open with your boss about that fact for the betterment of the organization. Also, sometimes what is expected of us may cause us to compromise our moral stance or personal integrity. When this is the case, it must be made clear to your overseer as well. Other than those two circumstances, I think we must be open to criticism and be willing to grow and improve where we can.

Learn to Sharpen Your Personal Awareness

Outside of having a leader or overseer that confronts our weaknesses,  we can learn to sharpen our perspective and awareness of our weaknesses in performance.

Again, I might sound like a broken record here, but the clearer the expectations are the easier this is. If your boss doesn’t give you clear objectives or goals with timelines assigned to them, then you should do this for yourself. And when you do, push yourself. Don’t set easy to attain goals, and at the same time don’t set impossible goals. Set difficult goals that are attainable but will stretch you a little beyond your current comfort zone. And when you reach these goals, in the timeframe allotted, reward yourself. Keep the same 3 rules of accountability with yourself, as you would with a staff member.

 

Excellence is a Priority

All of us are flawed, have shortcomings or weaknesses.  Some of them we choose to work on, other ones we try to conceal. But in order to continually keep everyone moving in a direction of correction that maximizes their transparency and candour we must keep excellence as a high priority.

I believe that vision leaks and that we all have a natural tendency to drift from excellence. Excellence is hard work and requires constant push, correction, and healthy accountability. I think that this is important in business because it effects the bottom line. But, I think it is even more important in the church because our bottom line impacts people’s eternities. So, with that in mind, pastors we must maintain a health culture of accountability and learn the art of how to confront with excellence because the church is the hope of the world and we are on a mission to reach every available person, at every available time, by every available means with the Gospel of Jesus Christ by creating churches unchurched people love to attend.

 

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2 thoughts on “The Give and Take of Criticism

  1. Generally, I have always tolerated criticism well. There is one person though that I become totally defensive with whenever they talk about what I am doing. Over the last couple years working for them, they have never appreciated or approved of anything I have done. I have always poured my heart into my work, and know that I add significant value to the business. I have come to the point where I just about lose it if they criticize me anymore. I cannot receive it whether or not it is valid. I really don’t want to be like that and I know this only makes their disapproval worse. How do I detach my feelings from criticism in this situation? Should I be graciously taking criticism from a chronically critical person?

    • Hi Sylvia! That’s a great question. Have you ever talked with this person about how you feel? If you talk with them, begin by telling them how their constant criticism makes you feel. There’s a good chance they are unaware of the effect they are having on you. Tell them you want to improve and meet their expectations, but that you are feeling afraid to make mistakes instead of boldly taking risks to improve the organization. Hopefully, together you can work on a solution of communication that will benefit both of you.