At Work

God’s Surprising Work Through Your Worst Critics

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We all have our share of feisty characters show up in our daily labors. My encounters with porcupine people began as an aspiring leader in high school.

Having already served in a number of roles, friends encouraged me to run for student body president. As I stood to give my campaign speech, there were jeers and boos from the back row. The opposing candidate had a younger brother. Unbeknownst to my campaign, little brother had gathered a gaggle of hecklers.

Disturbance rumbled in the room. I fumbled, stumbled over a phrase, then regained my composure to deliver a less-than-compelling address. Two days later, I was defeated. The event became a lifelong leadership lesson: Back-row critics abound!

Over the years, I have regularly encountered those “prickly critters” and their cantankerous pushback. You know the species. They’re often jaded, jealous, even belligerent—all too often verbally critical of the organization and you personally. Pokes feel painful.

Exceptional leadership in our workplaces means intentionally influencing others. Such intentional influence necessitates prioritizing the cultivation of our relational skills. In Business As Mission, Michael R. Baer reminds us that kingdom business is highly relational. Baer urges us to value people as God does by considering a brief survey of biblical anthropology.

  • People are the good creation of God, made in his image.
  • Humans are the highest point of God’s creation, but we are fallen and in rebellion against him.
  • By his gracious love, people are redeemed at a great price.
  • We will share in Christ’s kingdom.
  • As we await his coming kingdom, we are called to grow in Christ-likeness.

Such anthropological truths can motivate us to prioritize our relational skills, even with our critics. I’ve seen these truths bear out in various leadership realms as I’ve dealt with prickly problems and porcupine people.

1. Porcupines bring out my own reaction to poke back.

The urge to fling reciprocal accusations is totally normal. Our impulse is to punch back and set ‘em straight. It’s 100% natural. And that’s the problem.

As kingdom leaders, we are called to a supernatural, divine style of love for people who can be very unlovely. Forgiveness is a leadership essential. Christ led the way with that style of love for us. Love is absolutely necessary, even and especially when we don’t feel like it.

In his winsome relationship guide, The Delicate Art of Dancing with Porcupines, Bob Phillips counsels:

It’s not easy to demonstrate love in the face of criticism or rejection from others. But we must respond lovingly to others even when we don’t feel like it. I’ve had people tell me, ‘If I act loving when I don’t feel loving, I’d be a hypocrite.’ No, you are not a hypocrite. Rather, you are a responsible person demonstrating responsible behavior.

Leaders who are committed to work like Jesus respond responsibly instead of reacting with a poke back.

2. Porcupines bring out my own dark side reaction, to insist that I’m totally right!

It’s tempting to say, “They simply don’t yet see how pure-motived and Christ-like I am in both my attitude and approach.” Clad with such posture of heart, I stiffen my neck and determine that I am in the right.

In his classic book Spiritual Leadership, Oswald Sanders tells of Samuel Brengle, a leader in the Salvation Army who was sharply attacked by a caustic critic. Brengle’s response:

I thank you for your criticism of my life. It set me to self-examination and heart-searching and prayer, which always leads me into a deeper sense of my utter dependence on Jesus for holiness of heart, and into sweeter fellowship with him.

Years ago, one of my mentors urged me: Always draw the nugget from the negative. His point? Even if you know for certain you are right—and you often are—there is probably still something to learn, some way in which you can grow and change.

And right there is my deep-down biggest problem about working with the prickly ones. They often reveal more ways in which I need to change and grow in greater Christ-likeness. If I slow down to actually consider their pokes and jabs, I can sometimes see ways in which I need to lead our organization in better ways.

Doggone it! My critics’ accusations might carry a nugget of gold that can enrich my character and methodology for even greater kingdom work. Consider these three outcomes of working responsibly with your leadership porcupines:

  1. You’ll grow thicker skin.
  2. You’ll grow a softer heart.
  3. You might even discover surprises.

3. Porcupines remind me that God can do amazing things through prickly relationships.

Too often I have settled my view in firm cement. “She will never change. I know it!” It’s one of the ways we deal with the hurts, hang-ups, and heartaches we face from “those trouble-makers.”

But what if a person’s criticism isn’t always the end of the story?

Years ago, I needed to lead major change endeavors for an organization. As I began to lead, my list of critics grew exponentially longer. One senior gentleman really did not appreciate the fresh directions. “We’ve never done it that way!” The all-too-familiar mantra was his battle cry. In several meetings, he shared hard words, some of them aimed at me. It was so tempting to conclude: He will never come around.

To my amazement, a few months later he informed me that he and his wife were praying for me and my family. We sent them a Christmas card, and I learned it was on their refrigerator. In the months to come, I began to hear his words of encouragement and buy-in about the fresh momentum in our organization. We were changing. I was changing as my heart softened towards him. And my critic was actually changing for the good and for God’s glory.

I still cannot say I enjoy the painful pokes, but I can say I am grateful for how Christ uses my prickly critics. I gain thicker skin plus a softer heart—and sometimes even a stunning surprise.

Editor’s note: Learning about God’s purpose for work can help give you perspective on “prickly people.” Read further in How Then Should We Work?

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