3 Healthy Boundaries Every Leader Needs with Critics

At last year’s Willow Creek Leadership Summit, I heard Sheila Heen speak. She co-authored the book Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback with Douglas Stone. The session was so good I purchased the book. Wow. What an eye-opener. It’s chocked full of great insight and I highly recommend it. One particularly helpful section dealt with healthy boundaries every leader needs with critics when we don’t want or need their criticism. The authors suggest three ways to respond that I’ve summarized below.

Three boundaries every leader needs when the critics come calling.

The authors’ basic premise is that we need feedback and how we respond determines how well the feedback helps us. But sometimes we simply don’t need or want the feedback and criticism others offer us.

Here’s how to respond with grace, tact, and clarity.

  1. I am open to your feedback but may or may not heed it.
    • In this case, you do run the risk of the other person feeling rejected. If you are seeking their advice, request it in such a way to minimize that risk. For example, if you are considering some new ways to do mens’ ministry in your church, you might ask a key church leader, “I’m asking several men about some new ideas for mens’ ministry. Any ideas you care to share?” In this way you are communicating that you are listening to several different people, not just one which can take the edge off you not taking his suggestions.
  2. I can’t receive your feedback now.
    • In this case, at the moment you are not open to feedback on an issue. Let’s say you’re a pastor and really struggled with your Sunday sermon and you’re bummed out about it. Someone comes up to you at the end of the service and says, “Can I give you some feedback to your message?” If you can’t receive it at the moment, communicate that. Simply say something like, “I appreciate your willingness to give me feedback, but I just don’t have the emotional energy to hear it now. Thanks.”
  3. I don’t want your feedback on this.
    • This is the most strident boundary response. If this person does gives feedback it could severely damage your relationship or further damage a tenuous one. Let’s say you have a chronic critic in your church who won’t let an issue die and they keep badgering you. In this case when they come to you again it may be appropriate to say, “We’ve talked about this many times and we don’t agree. Please don’t bring it up again.”

Communicating in these ways isn’t easy, but necessary at times to keep healthy boundaries. In my research for my third book People Pleasing Pastors: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Approval Motivated Leadership, I discovered that a good percentage of pastors find it difficult to draw these kinds of boundaries.

If it’s tough for you, face your fears and try one of these boundaries next week with a critic.

What has helped you keep boundaries with your critics?

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