By Brian Dodridge
I like to read leadership books. What I don’t like is reading about myself in a book and it not being a compliment.
I guess I had delusions of grandeur that if I were to be mentioned in a top shelf leadership book, it would be for some sort of example where I’d been part of something good. But that’s not how it unfolded.
While reading the latest book of an author whose ideas and teachings I respect, I came across an anecdote about a meeting the author had with an executive pastor. As I read further, it became clear to me that he was sharing about an actual exchange he and I had on a previous occasion. The details he recalled (which were a pretty close rendering of the actual conversation) didn’t show me or my leadership in the best light.
What do you do when you read or hear feedback about yourself that’s negative?
If you’re like me, you react. On your best day, you hear it, evaluate its truth, and act accordingly. On your worst day, no matter if its truth, it elicits an emotion that’s likely tied to sin.
Can you think of the last time you heard someone say a critical comment toward you? How’d you feel? And more importantly, what did you do with the critique?
The answer to that last question is what separates average leaders from great leaders.
I don’t know if I’m alone in this, but negative feedback about my work and decisions comes fairly often. I work with and for quite a few people, and they all have opinions.
Sometimes those critical opinions of my work and leadership are expressed well. The “critic” isn’t disparaging me as a person, but is simply giving their opinion on how I did something wrong or made a poor decision. The author I mentioned earlier didn’t go after me as a person, but he captured a trait of mine that admittedly leaves me with a leadership deficit.
I could spend time writing about how I reacted in that situation, but I’ve spent enough time being a book-example-martyr, so let’s talk about how you and I as leaders can respond well to the critical comments that come our way
Respond to critiques by…
Separating from it
Some people need seconds of separation. Some people need days. I don’t know how you’re wired, but you need to know what your separation time needs to be, and then commit to not respond to the critique sooner than you should.
Setting aside the person
I think a lot of critical feedback gets missed because we only look at the person delivering it, and not the content. Some people are jerks. Some people have no concept of what you do. Some people are negative about all things. But that doesn’t mean their critique can’t be valuable in improving how you lead. In your mind, pretend the same critique instead came from someone you trust and who understands what you do. It’s mental gymnastics, but it can be helpful. And when you can play this game in your head, it’ll be easier to see content that’s valuable.
What if you started with the presupposition that all critique has some level of truth? If you need biblical help to get you there, think, “I’m depraved. Therefore, my leadership is depraved.” What 2, 5, or 50 percent of the critique is true? Pray — seek what the Spirit affirms.
Many times critiques are uninformed or out of context. But even then, there’s almost always some truth in it. Don’t dismiss the little bit of truth just because the critic doesn’t have all the facts.
If you can’t determine if the critique is accurate, take it to someone you respect, and ask a question like, “Someone mentioned to me the other day that in meetings I come across as ‘My way or the highway.’… Have you seen that in me at times?”
If your substantiation process clears you, get the critical comment out of your head and move on. However, if it’s substantiated, move to the next step.
Setting a corrective course
(S)engage it (That’s a silent ‘S’ so I could keep up my alliteration)
First, re-engage the person you “set aside”. Depending on your relationship with them and what you think they can offer, say to them something like: “Your feedback caused me to think, and I’ll keep considering what I need to learn from it.” or something like, “Your feedback was hard for me to hear, but I think you’ve identified something in me that needs to get better. Do you have any thoughts?”
Second, engage the portion of the critique you can control and identify the ways you can make changes. It may be a helpful self-development exercise for you.
If you lead, critique will happen. Some of it will be more justified than others. But the discipline of responding well to critique and engaging with it in a healthy way separates average leaders from great leaders. Average was okay with me in school, but you and I know there’s too much at stake in our churches and in leading others to be average as a leader.
Brian Dodridge serves as executive pastor at Brentwood Baptist Church near Nashville, TN.