Not All Praise (Or Criticism) Is Created Equal

Like most people, I like being praised. And I don’t enjoy receiving criticism. But not every example of praise or criticism is created equal. One of the staff members at our church recently shared with me the “Quadrant of Fearless Feedback,” part of a training he received at a past job. It is a simple but helpful grid that I’ve encouraged our staff to put into practice as they give and receive feedback:

I. General Positive  II. Positive Specific 
IV. General Negative  III. Negative Specific

I. General Positive

These are the sorts of compliments that are so generic they frequently go in one ear and out the other. “I’m so grateful for your ministry.” or “You the man!” or (I get this one a lot) “Great sermon.” We usually appreciate feedback like this, but it doesn’t last long. Regardless of the actual words used, this type of feedback really only communicates that you have some vaguely positive sentiment. It is the verbal equivalent of a smile.

II. Positive Specific

“Positive Specific” feedback focuses on a specific event and the positive outcome associated with it: because you did x, positive thing occurred. For instance, “The way you addressed materialism in that last sermon really challenged me to begin tithing.” Or, “The questions you wrote for that small group guide made it possible for us to have an open conversation.” This is the most fruitful square in the quadrant.

This is similar to a principle I picked up from the One-Minute Manager: affirm what you want to see. When someone praises something specific I do, I am much more likely to repeat it. The same goes for those whom we praise: we reproduce what we affirm.

III. Negative Specific

The key to “Negative Specific” feedback is the same as with “Positive Specific”: because you did (or failed to), negative thing occurred. For instance, “Showing up late to this meeting week after week tells everyone that you don’t think it’s important.” Or, “When you said that ‘All real Christians drive hybrids,’ that unnecessarily ostracized a lot of people.”

Negative feedback has a place in every organization, churches included. But I’ve found that we are more prone to assume the positives and notice the negatives. We need to switch that—assuming the negatives, and frequently pointing out the positives. When we do criticize, it is best to do so in private. And no criticism should ever come without some constructive ideas for how to improve in the future.

One other note on “Negative Specific” feedback: this can only happen (fruitfully) in an environment of respect. We don’t offer negative feedback unless we have first established a relationship of mutual trust. If someone respects me as a pastor, I may disagree with his feedback, but I’ll always listen. On the other hand, if I know you don’t respect me, I’m less inclined to listen to even the most insightful criticism.

IV. General Negative

This is just the flip side of the first category, and is by far the least helpful. Examples are not difficult to come by: “You are such an idiot,” or “Learn to use logic before you open up your mouth,” or “Have you even read the Bible?” This is a generally disapproving attitude more than anything else. If the “General Positive” square is the verbal equivalent of a smile, this is the verbal equivalent of a scowl. Or maybe (depending on the severity) a punch in the nose. Don’t spend your time here.

When giving feedback, we should strive for the “Positive Specific” square as much as possible (using “Negative Specific” when appropriate). Many of us will find this awkward and unnatural, but it both accords with gospel principles and increases the efficiency of an organization. What slows most organizations down is not inefficiency but lack of trust. In any organization, trust is your most valuable commodity. Guard it, cultivate it, give it.

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  1. Jenny Brown   •  

    The way you laid these principles out in a simple and yet intelligent way, really encouraged me to love my husband better today.

    P.s. i took a class from you 7 or so years ago & just stumbled upon your blog. I might have to check this blog out more often.


  2. Jenny Brown   •  

    i think i took a class from you…. J. D. Greear is not the name that i was expecting to see when i scrolled back up. but i found this blog from twitter.

    God bless!

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