the shape of leadership

The Life-Giving Power of Constructive Criticism

Four recommendations for giving essential feedback

Kayla Pierce on June 14, 2019

Giving negative feedback isn’t easy. We don’t want to discourage people who care deeply about their work and invest many hours serving.

For most people in ministry, what they do is a vital part of who they are. Their identities as pastors, staff members and volunteers are important to them, which is great! It means they feel invested in the mission.

Yet the more important an identity is to a person, the easier it is for them to feel slighted and become defensive when they hear a critique. For this reason, it’s tempting to sidestep this responsibility.

However, Scripture is clear about the benefits of constructive criticism. Proverbs 15:31 says, “Whoever heeds life-giving correction will be at home among the wise.” To fulfill God’s vision for our communities, we need our team members to grow in wisdom. That makes constructive criticism essential.

So how do we give feedback that is constructive? Social science research provides good insight. Daniel Ilgen, former president of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, is an expert on constructive criticism. Along with his colleagues, Ilgen developed these four recommendations:

To fulfill God’s vision for our communities, we need our team members to grow in wisdom.

1. Don’t delay. Opportunities for feedback often follow a specific event. Research shows that dragging your feet and delaying the delivery of feedback makes the information less effective. Take a day or so to gather your thoughts and ensure you can deliver the feedback in a positive tone. But don’t wait until the event is a distant, fuzzy memory.

2. Ask the individual to reflect on and assess his or her performance. People are generally hyper-aware of their weaknesses. Listening to people talk about themselves will help in understanding their thought processes, enabling you to identify strategies that will help them overcome their weaknesses in the future. I recommend doing this conversationally, and not through a written document, which feels rigid and formal.

Allowing an individual to talk through a situation first not only takes some of the pressure off you, but research shows that self-criticism does more to increase performance than criticism from leaders. It may even prompt them to ask you for advice, which serves as an invitation for feedback.

3. Be specific. To reduce embarrassment, don’t give feedback that is vague. We hope the person will connect the dots between recent events and our general feedback, but that’s not usually the case. When you give feedback, talk through specific examples.

4. Focus your critique on behavior, not character. Targeting a team member’s personhood will result in defensiveness or, worse, rejection of your feedback.

Acknowledge people’s good intentions, and communicate that you want to help them grow. Remind individuals that if you didn’t believe in them, you wouldn’t invest in them.

Remember, giving feedback makes you a more effective leader. Not only does your team desire to succeed, but they also want to please you. Giving them feedback helps achieve both of these goals.

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2019 edition of Influence magazine.

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