Build the reputations of your critics to be better leaders

Build the reputations of your critics to be better leaders

By Tom Harper

Tom Harper, a contributing writer for Church Executive, is president of the Society for Church Consulting, Louisville, KY [] and of, a free church health news and information site.

He is author of Career Crossover: Leaving the Marketplace for Ministry (B&H Publishing Group, 2007). The Society for Church Consulting trains consultants and offers a free 37-page pdf called The Comprehensive Guide to Church Consultant Training available through its Web site. Nearly 800 pastors, consultants and church leaders have been trained since 2002.

I was shocked when a colleague, a corporate VP, took a shot at me. He sent an e-mail to our CEO that criticized my management abilities and work skills. After struggling to distance myself from my emotions, I walked in his office and closed the door. Coincidentally, I had just studied the story of Gideon’s response to his own critics, and I decided to try out his technique.

In the book of Judges, Gideon is the weakest member of the weakest clan in his Hebrew tribe, but he is nevertheless chosen by God to save the entire nation of Israel. Gideon marshals 300 troops to chase the enemy Midianite army, calling on surrounding tribes to assist. One of the tribes zealously captures two Midianite leaders, but the tribe complains about missing the glory of Gideon’s main battle.

The text says they criticize Gideon “violently.” But rather than respond the same way, he praises them. They wanted credit for an important victory no matter how significant it really was. Gideon knew the human heart well.

Avoid private, negative comments

Gideon’s master touch emanated from his humble attention and sensitivity to others. When this unlikely leader deflected his critics back to themselves, their jealousy and denigration lost power. Their anger subsided as Gideon lifted up their accomplishments over his own. When I tried this with my colleague, we reconciled and he agreed to avoid private, negative comments in the future.

Critical questions

  • Who are your regular critics on the job?
  • How do you typically handle their comments?
  • Do you need to adjust?
  • Do you need to be less critical of others?

While it’s okay to feel hurt and betrayed, Gideon models how we can show poise when our egos are threatened. Politicians are masters at smiling when a heckler or malicious reporter snipes at them. Similarly, seasoned CEOs know how to handle cutthroat Wall Street analysts. My problem is this: Though I’ve learned how to respond to my detractors with kindness, the pain remains. Some see my reserved composure as an invitation to come back with more intense heat next time. When does my gracious turning of the cheek undermine my authority? As a leader, I’m obligated to defend myself and my people when mistruths propagate. I’m expected to be strong out in front, not a weak target, right?

Again, Gideon’s example offers a solution. He did more than give a refined response; he prevented further criticism that could have escalated into humiliation. Gideon’s method was to lift up his critics higher than himself, without diminishing his own accomplishments. We can apply this process in two ways:

1. Identify and promote their strengths. When we point out the strengths of a critic in meetings and one-on-one discussions with others in the company, it gets around that you think a lot of him, and he may feel a twinge of guilt when he criticizes you in the future.

2. Ask for confidential criticism. Those who sling mud at me in public usually change their tune in private discussions. I’ve found a powerful question when I’m behind closed doors: “Is there anything I can do to improve?” This often elicits advice I can actually benefit from, but it also takes wind away from the person’s public airing of my faults.
Private comments are easier for me to take, because they lack pent-up emotion, I’m prepared to hear them and there’s no audience to fuel the drama.

Preventing a public confrontation saves embarrassment and defensiveness for everyone. Xerox’s CEO Anne Mulcahy said, “Stay approachable. Surround yourself with a group of good critics. It’s the biggest gift you can get.”

Practice gracious acceptance

When we ask for constructive criticism we still have to practice gracious acceptance. Bob Russell, retired pastor of Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, KY, wasn’t immune from criticism even after 40 years in the same church. He said one reason he lasted so long in ministry is he learned to cope with criticism and endure the naysayers. In fact, he recounted a barb from one man who told him, “You know, you look a lot younger from a distance.” Preaching to 18,000 people every week made him an easy target.

Even George Washington was criticized so harshly that he left the presidency vowing the press would never get a chance to abuse him again. As the public’s shortsightedness faded, historians lauded him as the hero of American independence. The great German resistance leader Von Moltke said, “You have in American history one of the great captains of all times. It might be said of him … that he seldom won a battle but he never lost a campaign.” Washington reveals one of the great truths of criticism: Condemnation for losing skirmishes is forgotten when big-picture victory is achieved.

What if a critic is just a bully at heart? It’s difficult to endure a colleague or boss who won’t let up, no matter how gracious you are. Studies by Griffith University in Australia have found workplace bullying affects one in four people and costs the economy $12 billion a year. In England, bullying is so rampant that a national workplace bullying helpline was set up.

According to the Canada Safety Council, bullied employees waste between 10 and 52 percent of their time at work. Instead of working, they’re defending themselves, networking for support, thinking about the situation, dealing with fear and depression, or taking sick leave due to stress-related illnesses. Many of these people’s marriages suffer. Excessive pressure and daily anxiety push some people over the psychological precipice, causing them to act aggressively in the workplace.

Anyone — even a senior church leader — can find themselves the target of a bully. One expert says victims are more likely to be competent, capable, dedicated, non-confrontational, well liked by co-workers, and yet somehow threatening to the bully. Habitual oppressors present themselves as strong and assertive and find their way into positions of influence or power (like a church board). They pretend they won’t take grief from anyone, nor tolerate incompetence, laziness or missed goals. They may refuse to acknowledge good work, inflicting unjustified criticism and trivial fault-finding as a rule.

How to handle this extreme critic? The first thing to remember is Benjamin Franklin’s famous quip: “Any fool can criticize, and most fools do.” Many times, the bully looks foolish to everyone but the victim. So, if you’re on the receiving end of acerbic comments in a meeting, become an onlooker for a moment. Evaluate the situation without emotion — who is really being humiliated in front of the group, you or your detractor?

Criticism and bullying can devastate organizational culture. In fact, when they’re left unchecked, they can define the culture. Responding with impersonal distance can realign the victim’s perspective and allow a healthier response, both in the moment and afterward. Gideon’s uncommon tactic of lifting up his critics can save our leadership from the weaknesses our detractors claim to have discovered.


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