Seven Ways to Know if You Have a Critical Spirit
In the last post, I set up a short series about Critical Eyes vs. Critical Spirits. In any type of leadership, critical eyes are a must. We have to be able to identify and strip away anything that might compete for the vision of our church, our business, or our family. But critical spirits are an entirely different animal altogether, and a constant critical spirit can actually undermine the thing you’re trying to build. Here are a few ways to know if your “eye for detail” is actually something more sinister:
1. A critical spirit sets up the problem without seeking a solution. It’s relatively easy to identify an issue, but it takes relationship and skin in the game to solve the issue. As leaders, we can’t just point out what’s wrong and offer up few options on the path to get it right. Solutions move problems from a faceless, nebulous villain to a tangible, practical step forward. A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion. Proverbs 18:2 (ESV)
2. A critical spirit doesn’t just have a question; it is always questioning. I love questions. As a leader, you should love questions. You should ask them, and you should try to answer them. Questions mean that we are learning and growing. But there’s a difference between having a question and always questioning. A critical spirit is never satisfied. I once met with a couple who were looking for a new church. They’d found their way to the Summit, and over the course of the conversation they systematically badmouthed and/or destroyed every church, ministry, and leader they had ever been affiliated with. And every question I answered about our church elicited more questions. There would never be a satisfactory answer, because these folks were the sole residents of an exclusive theological / methodological island, and they weren’t issuing travel visas to anybody. (I think the phrase I’m looking for here is “Bless their hearts.”)
3. A critical spirit will sacrifice people for the process. Process is important. Standard operating procedures can be crucial. Rules are usually rules for a reason. But when your process or SOP or rules consistently crush your team, you’ve made an idol out of lesser things. Seek to honor people, not policy. And when process or policy need to be heeded, do it in a way that brings people forward rather than leaving them bleeding on the sidelines.
4. A critical spirit sucks life rather than infusing it. Look at those you lead, manage, or parent. When you finish an interaction or a “teachable moment,” do you leave them encouraged or discouraged? Even when saying hard words, do you say them in a soft way? Do you help people see the sunrise on the horizon, or all of the potholes in the road that’s taking them there? If you beat people down rather than build them up, then you might have a critical spirit. A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. Proverbs 15:1 (ESV) // Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord. Ephesians 6:4 (NIV)
5. A critical spirit takes the team’s focus off of the mission. Your mission should be the North Star that drives all of your momentum forward. A mission is bigger than house rules or an employee handbook. Just like a sermon should cause the listener to look to Jesus, a godly critique helps them remember the mission. A critical spirit, on the other hand, makes the problem loom large and makes them forget the reason for existence. It forces people to think about here’s what you’re doing wrong right now and not here’s how we can achieve this goal together.
6. A critical spirit focuses on “you,” “I,” or “they,” but never “we.” Ungodly critics are never opposed to throwing others under the bus. When I’m possessing a critical spirit, I love a certain few pronouns: it’s all about what you did or how they botched the assignment or how I would never have led that meeting that way. “We” is the kill shot for the critical spirit. Whereas you, I, and they polarize, we unites. It calls out teamwork and recognizes that if we’re going to move forward, we have to do it together. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Philippians 2:3-4 (ESV)
7. A critical spirit takes great pleasure in the criticism. This may be the simplest way for me to determine whether I have a critical eye or whether I’m just employing a critical spirit. The question we must ask ourselves is always: “Do I take pleasure in this?” When disciplining my children and calling out bad behavior, do I enjoy telling them what they did wrong? When meeting with a team member or volunteer, do I find joy in pointing out how they didn’t fulfill their role? When talking to my spouse, do I take perverse pleasure in identifying their character flaws? A mature leader always possesses sorrow when someone is not fulfilling their potential, but expresses great joy when offering to help them move forward.
Here’s what I know about me: I have to fight my own critical spirit at every turn. I say noble things like “I just have an eye for detail!” or “I’m only trying to help!” when I know that it’s not always about details and altruism, but about control and pride. A critical spirit will erode your team’s trust in your leadership. A critical spirit will wither the soul of your child. A critical spirit will make your spouse suffer through a miserable marriage.
The only answer for those of us who are hard-wired with a critical spirit? The power of the gospel. We have to apply the gospel to our hearts every single day, recognizing that our hearts are far more wicked than those that we lead, but that we all are deeply loved more than we can know. Embracing those truths keeps our humility in check and frees us to love others as we have been loved.
Fight the critical spirit. Watch for it. Identify it. Kill it.
But also fight for a good critical eye, because critical eyes are crucial. We’ll tackle that in the next post.
View all the posts in this series:
- Critical Eye vs. Critical Spirit
- Seven Ways to Know if You Have a Critical Spirit
- Eight Ways to Develop a Critical Eye