Breaking Our Dependence on Praise


“You like me.  You really like me!”  Let’s face it. We are all guilty of defining our self-worth by what others think. When people praise us we feel successful.  Are we?

Courageous and adaptive leadership requires leaning into our own incompetence, and pointing out the incompetence of our congregations.  Leading beyond our own competence will invite mistakes and failures. Mistakes and failures call forth criticism.

Anything really worth doing as a leader is going to involve criticism.  How do we wean ourselves from a dependency on praise and teach ourselves and others to work well with criticism?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????

1. Recognize that feedback is data. Feedback, in the form of praise or criticism, is primarily about the person offering it. Typically, praise or criticism leveled at a leader has little to do with the leader’s personal performance.  If you treat the feedback as data you can remain more objective about it, and use it to better understand the organization you are leading.

An individual offering praise may be using it as an ingratiation tactic, to get into your good graces, to create rapport, or to advance an agenda.  They may be trying to enhance their own self-image by displaying their magnanimous nature.  They may use praise to break the ice, to introduce a topic that is hard for them to talk about. They may be telling you that what you have done aligns with who they are.

Similarly, criticism is often data about the personal preferences, emotional maturity or values of the person(s) offering the critique.  Criticism may indicate change resistance, a tension in values, or priorities out of alignment.

2.  Become more aware of your own triggers. Each of us has emotional triggers that reflect our personal insecurities.  Our most dysfunctional congregants have a knack for honing in on our triggers, criticizing us in just the right way to provoke reactivity.

If I know which stimuli are likely to set me off, I can create intentional strategies to override my automatic “flight or flight” response, so that I can respond with greater intentionality.

3. Learn to evaluate the quality of the feedback you receive. You are in control of whether you will receive the feedback that has been offered, whether you will seek further information to strengthen the feedback, or whether you will simply choose to ignore it.

You can evaluate whether or not the feedback you receive is valid by considering its accuracy, its substance, and its importance.

  • Accuracy:  Who is offering this feedback?   Are they in a position to accurately observe and evaluate your efforts?  What are their intentions and vested interests? Do they have the emotional capacity and willingness to offer feedback constructively? Are they having a bad day?
  • Substance: What values and priorities does this individual hold with regard to the feedback topic?  Are their values and priorities in alignment with yours? With the organization? Are they vested in your best interest and the best interest of the congregation?
  • Importance: How critical is this feedback to the success of your initiative?  How central is their viewpoint to your efforts? How connected are they to others and what is the likelihood that others will give credence to what they are saying?

4.  Ask for better feedback. Undifferentiated praise is no more helpful than undifferentiated criticism.  If you want to move away from a dependency on praise you must invite more concrete feedback.  Begin by explaining to others how, when and where you prefer to receive feedback. (A critique of the sermon in the back of the church during the meet and greet…not so helpful.) Ask clarifying questions. What was the specific context, the behavior, the impact?  Invite feedback from others to verify the data that you are receiving.  In the face of criticism, ask the critic to suggest alternative behaviors that would be more effective in the future.

5.  Nurture a contemplative mind-set. Ultimately, to break our dependence on external praise we need to strengthen our authentic, soulful self.  As we become clearer about who we are in relationship to our source, we lessen the need for external validation.  Contemplation is an all-embracing quality of presence that is grounded in prayer and union with the divine. Contemplation through prayer and meditation invites us to release our attachments to outcomes in general, and to the need for praise. We remain steadier, more objective and less reactive when we are centered in God.

Attaching our self-worth to the praise of others is a dangerous leadership practice.  It prevents us from taking necessary risks.  We must focus less on whether we are praised or criticized, and focus more on improving the quality of feedback we offer and receive.

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