By Eddie Pipkin

I recently read an interesting article about feedback.  It focused on the secrets to long term organizational success and how to build a culture that consistently achieves this elusive goal.  Even with unpredictable challenges, revolving personnel, and a grueling schedule, some organizations manage to produce triumph after triumph.  Sounded like the kind of ministry goal for which we are all shooting.  But in the article on which I stumbled, the topic was basketball and the San Antonio Spurs, a team which, despite the complications listed above, has produced winning seasons and playoff appearances like clockwork—they have the highest win-loss percentage of any team in the NBA.

Much of this success is attributed to head coach Gregg Popovich.  Taking over as the team’s leader in 1996, he has recorded 20 consecutive winning seasons and is the longest actively serving head coach in any professional sports league in the U.S.  He is an expert on building a winning culture, because one of the keys to steadiness and serenity in such a complex organizational endeavor is developing a system of feedback that keeps everyone oriented in the direction of a shared vision.  But not just any feedback—not feedback as no-holds-barred critique or feel-good aphorisms.  This is something different and highly effective (as recounted in this article from Time):

A few years back a team of psychologists from Stanford, Yale and Columbia discovered that one particular form of teacher feedback boosted student effort and performance so immensely that they deemed it “magical feedback.” The feedback was not complicated. In fact, it consisted of one simple phrase.

I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.

That’s it. Just 19 words. None of these words contain any information on how to improve. Yet they are powerful because they deliver a cultural signal:

You are part of this group.

This group is special; we have high standards here.

I believe you can reach those standards.

Alone, each of these signals would have a limited effect. But together they create a steady stream of magical feedback. For the Spurs, every dinner, every elbow touch, every impromptu seminar on politics and history adds up to build and reinforce a narrative: You are part of this group. This group is special. I believe you can meet our high standards.

In other words, the Spurs don’t succeed because they are good at basketball. They succeed because they are skilled at a far more important sport: building strong relationships.

Building strong relationships.  Relationship-building is not just a management strategy to get better efficiency from employees.  Relationship-building is at the very heart of discipleship.  Relationship-building is the focus of Jesus’ work in the gospels, and the foundational principle of our mission as followers of Christ in this world.  Everything we do in pursuit of ministry goals large and small should lead to the strengthening of relationships.  Every detour in the weeds we experience when we get bogged down in the details of programs and logistics (at the expense of relationships) sacrifices what should be our most important priority.  But when we keep relationship-building in the forefront of our strategic vision, success organically follows.

Note how this relationship-building serves any worthy goal (winning NBA games or empowering ministry that serves a local community).  And note how establishing higher standards of performance serves both the goal and the relationship-building.  It is not uncommon for ministry leaders to defend lower standards: we don’t want to frighten people; we don’t want to make ministry participation too hard; we don’t want to turn people off.  But this is not Jesus’ model.  Although he did not have an MBA, Jesus led with the insight that people are energized by higher standards.  People want to be a part of something successful.  Every piece of detailed advice we give our team members should reflect this truth that these specific observations and adjustments I am giving you do not exist is some sort of perfectionist vacuum; they ultimately serve the goal of the relationships and shared vision we are building together.

Perhaps, as ministry leaders, we struggle to lead as Jesus led because of the critics that inhabit our own craniums.  In our struggle for perfection, we may be offering useful feedback to our team members even as we are providing a relentless and destructive internal critique to ourselves.  Khe Hy, quoting Stanford lecturer Shirzad Chamine in a post called “Beating Yourself Up Is Not as Helpful as You Think,” notes that this intense internal critic—familiar to most of us—was useful in prehistoric times when every decision in every moment could result in life or death.  In the modern world, however, it is damaging overkill:

[T]his natural response to threats eventually outlives its usefulness. It creates what Chamine calls an “emotional tax.” The inner critic, he writes, encourages “you to constantly find faults with yourself, others, and your conditions and circumstances, [which generates] much of your anxiety, stress, anger, disappointment, shame, and guilt.” Furthermore, it stymies the ability to be “more discerning, aware, agile, vigilant, creative, decisive, and action-oriented.”

Ostaseski agrees with this assessment, adding that beating ourselves up prevents us from employing a “more objective voice,” one that can “differentiate, discern, and guide us forward.”

In [his book on this subject] Positive Intelligence, Chamine cites multiple examples of how salespeople, CEOs, and doctors all benefit from reducing the self sabotage that emanates from a harsh internal dialogue. But as with most habits that have been ingrained in us from early childhood, silencing an inner critic can be difficult.

He encourages two strategies for changing this internal dialogue:

  • Actively naming these unhealthy streams of self-criticism. He has developed a habit of thinking of these critiques as a separate, unfriendly voice to recognized and turned away.  Being aware of them and naming them for what they are is the first step for disempowering them.
  • Actively working to shift the ration of self-critique thoughts to more positive thoughts. In his own case, he estimated his starting ration was 10% positive and 90% negative, but over time he has managed to flip that ratio into more positive territory.

Such strategies are directly adaptable to our mindful prayer lives as followers of Jesus.  We know that negative loops of self-critique are not of the Holy Spirit.  We can prayerfully be focused, through Scripture, prayer, study and other valuable spiritual disciplines, on more positive feedback loops.

And the internal work we do translates directly to the leadership of our ministry teams.

What have been your own experiences with that internal voice of criticism?  How have you defended against it and taken a more positive direction?  What strategies have you used to produce useful feedback systems without your own ministries?  Share your stories in the comments section.