It is now three years later. I have sat on and chaired several committees. My wife is now president of our Boar. During that time I have noticed something I have found endemic to the life of our community and, from what I hear, is pretty characteristic of other communities as well. It is the pall of corrosive criticism.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I do believe that there is a place for thoughtful and informed feedback and even criticism if it well conceived and designed to build up and improve on what exists. However, this type of criticism takes a lot of work and care. It is almost never an immediate reaction to a fresh set of facts and circumstances. I am not taking about this kind of thoughtful, constructive criticism. Rather I am talking about what might be called “corrosive criticism”.
In my sort tenure with our church, I have seen people leave our community because of the harshness of people’s judgments of their contributions or the contributions of others. I have watched good people who have put in hours and hours of hard work have it torn to shreds by people in seconds who are reacting without any real thought or consideration. I have seen good, thoughtful ideas tentatively put forward by people who have potential leadership skill put down and dismissed without any real understanding of what was being said. The toll of this type of criticism is enormous.
From what I can see, more than any other dynamic in church life, this type of knee-jerk response and lack of restraint in sharing every idea that pops into our heads, demoralizes people and makes it difficult to recruit leaders. Who wants to set themselves up for this kind of abuse? Why would people want to put their heart and soul in the work to have it so cavalierly disregarded?
Personally, I think this is a real problem. I am really trying this year to be a part of the solution. As such I am working on the following:
- Affirming people for the work they are doing and the contributions they are making.
- Using as a mantra: “Those who do the work get to make the decisions.”
- When I don’t understand a decision of some import, I am trying to go to a person who participated in making the decision and ask questions. The types of questions I have found useful include: How did you come to that decision? Did you consider X and how did that factor into your decision? Is the decision final or is there additional opportunity for input? How are you finding that people are responding? Is there anything I can do to help?
- In conversations about decisions, I am trying to acknowledge the hard work of the people involved and the fact that they undoubtedly had more information than I do.
I find that these questions are almost always best prefaced with something like: “This must have been a tough decision. Have you gotten any flack for it? I want you to know that I support your personal work in this community and I know how much you give. I also want you to know that, to the extent the opportunity arises, I will publicly support the decision you all made. It would help me to understand how you got to the decision both for my own sake and also to help me in my conversations with others."
In trying to avoid corrosive criticism, I feel that I can positively contribute to the community. What I have found is that the people who are making decisions have most often very thoughtful reasons for deciding as they did. I may agree or disagree, but these things are rarely so clear cut that there is only one right course of action. And for the sake of my community, and its long term health, I can support people of goodwill who are doing the best they can as volunteers.
Finally, I would note, that if we cannot be civil and supportive of one another, it seems that it will be very difficult to make an appreciable difference in the world. And so, out of compassion and out of a desire to support and strengthen those in my community who contribute, I am seeking to avoid corrosive criticism.
© 2007. Matthew Wesley. All rights reserved.