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?

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.

[bctt tweet="What you tolerate will become your standard." username="kellystickel"]

Wait 24hrs

Nicole Lindsay, writes for   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.

[bctt tweet="Conflict is the space between what I expected and what I experienced." username="kellystickel"]

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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Growing Your Leadership Capacity


Growing your leadership capacity might be one of the most important and maybe most overlooked quality of leaders today.

Grow Your Self Identity Capacity

Young leaders often struggle with their “identity”.  To grow your identity, you have to grow your capacity to be “you”.  Society labels you.  Labels limit you.  Limits create boundaries.  Boundaries stifle your capacity for growth.  John Maxwell says:  “If you don’t know what’s limiting you, how will you remove it? 

So how do you begin to grow your capacity to be more than the limitations and labels you accepted of yourself when you were younger?

I have always been a curious person, and so I think it was that curiosity that led me to try new things and to question the status quo…in anything. So, when people labeled me one way, I would naturally question it and challenge it and test to see if it was really true. I think when I did that, and tried new things, I began to discover for myself who I was and more importantly who I wasn’t. 

Grow Your Diversity Capacity

There are two kinds of people:  those who make deposits and those who make withdrawals. So choose your inner circle carefully, because our inner circle limits us if we don't let it evolve. I believe it was John Maxwell who said that you will become just like the 5 people you hang around with the most - so your inner circle is vital in developing your capacity. I have carefully chosen who I ask to mentor me and who I allow to speak into my life. I look for people who have a particular skill or quality that I feel I lack or need to develop and I seek them out for mentorship.

When I found the right person I would write them an email and tell them about what trait or skill I admired in them and how I would like to take them for lunch or for a coffee so that I could ask them a series of questions on that topic. I was always very specific about what I wanted to meet about and how long it would take to meet. As a result, I have developed a number of really cool friendships and mentors this way. It’s important to recognize that there isn’t one person who encompasses all of the skills, talents and strengths I need to grow, so it is important to find a variety of people you can learn from and then be prepared to ask great questions of them. This is a great way to expand your capacity. 

The danger comes when I narrow my inner circle to those who are just like me. It is human nature to seek out people who think just like you do and who you can agree with but if we only learn from people who are just like us we put massive limitations on our capacity. Sure, sometimes it's more comfortable that way as I don’t have to be challenged in my thinking or criticized or confronted but confrontation and criticism aren’t always bad and can result in helping a develop and broaden our thinking. 

So, I try hard to not allow myself to get stuck in that rut.  I seek to learn all I can from different sources. I mostly do that through books and reading authors from a variety of different perspectives, and if a person’s point of view makes me mad I ask “Why?” and I have discovered that most of the time there is something in me that needs to change.

There are times when I have the privilege of sitting down with people who are from a different camp than me and I make sure that I do more listening than talking. You will be amazed at what you can learn and from whom you can learn, if you intentionally embrace a diversity of thoughts.

Exposure to a diverse way of thinking may question everything you thought you knew. Exposure to the ways a diverse group of people process information or how they make decisions will grow your thinking capacity in ways you never imagined. That's how you grow. Your capacity to open yourself to a diversity of people, a diversity of thought and a diversity of leadership styles doesn’t happen overnight but it is important if you are going to develop your growth capacity.

But you can't expose yourself to what you don’t know exist. So be curious! Most of the times I have learned something new it was by asking people questions and genuinely listening. Listening is key. I am amazed at what I have learned by listening to people and probing into their worlds. I also think it is important to especially listen to the next generation. As I get older, I am finding it easier to think I know more than those younger than me, and that is almost always not the case.

There is so much we can learn from the next generation that will revolutionize our worlds. The same is true about the older generation. They have been there, and have so much more experience and often know the answers to the questions we are asking, if we would just ask and then listen. 

With the bombardment of information today and diversity of thought at our fingertips, this overload of information requires discernment. You have to be willing to listen to everyone and then filter what is the best. How do I know what is best? Well, I first look for the fruit in someone’s life and ministry or business. Are they getting good results, results that I am looking to get? Are they getting those results the right way? In other words, is how they are achieving those results align with my vision and core values? If there is a clash with my personal vision, ministry vision, or a clash with my core values, that is not the best person to learn from.

Grow Your Character Capacity

[bctt tweet="As your leadership influence grows, character growth is not an option." username="kellystickel"]

You have to stay disciplined in the disciplines. And really, I have found no other way that is as effective in growing my character as establishing a regular habit of reading the Bible. I wrote about it in my book, My Victory Starts Here, the Bible Society did a survey about the power of reading the Bible 4 times a week or more and it’s affect on our habits and the results were amazing. When King David said, “Your Word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” He was absolutely right.

  • Take care of your private life. Growing your character capacity is a private issue with public consequences. So, are you the same person in private as you are in public? This is called integrity. If you take care of your private life, God will take care of your public life.
  • Lead yourself. Are you disciplined? Discipline is the ability to lead yourself. If you can lead yourself you will be able to lead others.


Grow Your Criticism Capacity

I have discovered the difference between the highly successful leaders and what most would call the average leaders, is often not skill, it’s their ability to handle pain and criticism. I don’t think handling criticism ever gets any easier, but what we can grow is our response to that criticism. There are two ditches when it comes to handling criticism. The first ditch is the one we crawl into if we as leaders start listening to our critics too much and cater to their every whim trying to make them all happy. You will never make everyone happy. I love the quote from a famous basketball coach who said if you listen to the critics in the stands you will soon be in the stands yourself. It’s so true. The other ditch is when we don’t listen to anyone and plough ahead regardless of what people around us say. Every ounce of gold is surrounded by tons of dirt.  I know this sounds contradictory, but you have to learn to study the criticisms and mine the gold, the truth in them. Sometimes you have to sift through a ton of dirt to find the ounce of gold - or a truth that could really help you and your organization.

 [bctt tweet="The difference between highly successful & average leaders is their ability to handle pain & criticism" username="kellystickel"]
Grow Your Crisis Capacity

John Maxwell says “experience is not the best teacher, evaluated experience is the best teacher”. So when a great opportunity falls apart at the seams or when life just slaps you in the face, it’s “crisis” time.

I love what Dr. George Hill — one of my mentors — calls the crisitunity. He uses this term to let all of us know that in every crisis is an opportunity. The Chinese, Mandarin, symbol for problem is a problem combined with an opportunity. In order to find the opportunities in the crisis you have to go looking for them and it’s starts by simply asking the question, “what can we learn here?” “What can this crisis teach us?” There is always a solution. As leaders, we have to be solution minded and solution focused, not problem focused.


Grow Your Listening Capacity

In a crisis, one of the most valuable leadership skills is the ability to “read the room”.  “Reading the room” challenges our listening and observation skills.  Become a student of people. You have to love people and study people and to do that you have to listen and ask a lot of questions and then listen again. Too often, I am tempted to do all of the talking when I meet new people, and I have learned that before I can weigh in I need to read the room and I will only be able to read the room if I am truly listening. So learn to listen past the first level - that’s the words coming out of their mouths. I try to listen past the words and listen for the emotions. Where are their passions? Where are their fears? When I can sense those, I can decide the next course of action in the conversation.

Grow Your Vision Casting Capacity

As you grow in your leadership capacity you must develop mastery in vision casting. This requires a different capacity than just executing someone else’s vision. 

For me, one of the major things I have learned over the last 10 years when it comes to vision casting is the importance of having a predetermined culture established that will gel with the vision cast. Culture trumps vision and so if the culture doesn’t jive with the vision, the culture will win out every time. And if that happens, people will stop believing you when you cast a vision. So, I have learned to be more patient in sharing vision until I am convinced the culture we’ve designed can handle it.

[bctt tweet=" Culture trumps vision." username="kellystickel"]
Grow Your Risk Taking Capacity

When a leader feels stuck at a certain level of a leadership position where they work or minister, they feel frustrated, even desperate for a change in positions.  Rushing ahead is risky but so is “waiting and waiting” for that next opportunity.

Jesus said we have to be “faithful in the little things” before we can be “faithful in the big things”. When I feel stuck or trapped in a position I feel I have outgrown, I always ask myself, “have I been faithful in all of the little things where I am?” These keep me focused on doing the best I can where I’m at. Then I’ve come to realize that as leaders we always need to be growing faster than our organization. That means that we are out front and that sometimes what we are waiting for is the “rope to catch” in our organization and it will catch up to us. How do I grow my capacity to stay the course? I must discipline myself to keep growing personally regardless of how I feel and eventually the rope will catch.

Grow Your Competitiveness Capacity

Athletes grow their capacity for competition at different levels of their career.  High school competition is one thing, Olympic competition is another.   For leaders, growing our personal competitive edge is vital.  To push ourselves beyond previous boundaries and limitations requires the capacity to compete against ourself, our history and against our previous successes.

Sometimes, you have to put yourself in uncomfortable situations where the competition is greater. As a leader, I must surround myself with better leaders. If I spend all of my time with people who are the same as me or are lesser leaders, then I won’t grow as much. But, if I stretch myself to hang around leaders who are better than me, I will grow, too.

I model this with my team by taking them to mega church conferences. We want to put ourselves in situations and with people who have gone further than us so that we don’t think too highly of ourselves and so that we see how far we can still go. That always reinvigorates our competitive drive.

Grow Your Self Assessment Capacity

It is important to grow in your capacity to assess yourself. I think this happens best when I use reflective thinking - reflecting on myself and how I handled people and situations as a leader. I use these times to learn about me, my strengths and weaknesses and where my capacity limit is.

For example; I think I’m growing my capacity to make the tough call. Leading is never easy, but especially when you have to make a tough call that effects people you love, but is the obvious decision to make for the betterment of the whole. Those are never fun but are absolutely necessary. I want to be a loving and compassionate leader who is not afraid of making the tough call. That’s what I’m focused on right now.

By continually and honestly self assessing, you will highlight areas for growing your capacity in self-identity, diversity, character, criticism, crises, listening,  vision casting, taking risks, competitiveness and even effective self assessments.

Dr. Daniel Goleman said that EQ or Emotional Intelligence counts for 80-90% of the factors that distinguish average from outstanding leaders. His research indicates that the higher a leader rises in an organization, the less important technical skills become, and the more important EQ becomes. IQ and technical skills are important, but emotional intelligence is vital to leadership. Emotional intelligence (EQ) generally comprises the capability to be self-aware, self-managing, interpersonally effective, stress tolerant, and optimistic. Capacity is all about EQ. If you want to lead great, and because you are listening to this podcast, I know you want to lead great - you will have to grow your capacity and EQ to do so. We need great, high capacity leaders in the church. 


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