Surviving Friendly Fire: 8 Tips for Dealing with Unfair Criticism

criticismSooner or later…sooner if you’re in a leadership position…you will get wounded by “friendly fire”— unfair criticism from a boss or colleague.

Friendly fire comes in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes it shows up in your annual performance review when the boss rates you as failing to meet expectations in an area of performance where you had no idea you were falling short. Other times friendly fire shows up when a colleague criticizes you in an effort to deflect attention from his/her own shortcomings. Regardless of the cause or circumstance, friendly fire hurts. It erodes trust between people, causes rifts in relationships, and stymies effective teamwork. You can’t control when friendly fire comes your way, but you can choose how to respond. Here are 8 tips on how to survive friendly fire:

1. Remember that your response shapes your reputation – Above all else, remember this point: the way you choose to respond to friendly fire will greatly shape your reputation. Take the high road and respond with integrity, empathy, and professionalism. Don’t let someone else’s unprofessional behavior goad you into responding in kind. Trusted leaders know that at the end of the day all they have is their integrity.

2. Don’t react defensively – Defensiveness only escalates the situation and lends weight to the unjustified criticism (similar to responding to a loaded question like “Have you stopped beating your wife?”). Getting passionately fired up over friendly fire gives emotional control to the accuser and limits your ability to respond rationally and thoughtfully.

3. Listen to understand; not to rebut or defend – Our most common instinct when we experience friendly fire is to zero in on the fallacies of the other person’s comments and formulate a response to defend ourselves. Instead, resist the urge to focus on the micro elements of what’s being communicated and instead focus on the macro implications of the criticism. Even if the specific accusations of the criticism are off-base, there may be things you can learn and benefit from if you consider the broader message.

4. Acknowledge any truth that is present – Agreeing with any valid part of the criticism is a way to acknowledge you’re hearing the feedback without agreeing to the entirety of what’s being communicated or beating yourself up over the situation. Sometimes there is a kernel of truth present in friendly fire and it may be an opportunity for you to learn something new about yourself or the other person. If there are elements of the criticism that are blatantly not true, state your differences in a respectful and professional way without getting into a debate parsing the details.

5. Consider the source – Probably the sagest of all advice when it comes to unfair criticism. If the person delivering the criticism is prone to dramatization, criticizing others, being egotistical, or other unpredictable behavioral patterns, then you have more evidence to discredit their feedback. However, if the person delivering the criticism is known as a steady, stable, trustworthy professional who has been personally supportive of you in the past, you should take stock of their feedback and explore it further.

6. Probe for root causes – What’s being communicated in friendly fire is often symptoms of a deeper problem or issue. When you encounter friendly fire, ask open-ended questions or statements like “Tell me more…,” “Explain why that’s important to you…,” or “What is the impact of that?” Asking a series of “why?” questions can also help you discover the root cause of the issue.

7. Understand their world – To understand a person’s motivation for being unfairly critical, it’s helpful to put yourself in their shoes. Is the person unhappy? Stressed? Insecure? Vying for power or control? Frustrated? Is there a significant amount of change happening in the organization? Organizational change brings out the snipers and friendly fire increases dramatically. Criticizing and blaming others is a defense mechanism to deal with the fear of being asked to change. Even though you’re the target, remember that friendly fire is often more about them than you.

8. Remember that you are more than the criticism – It’s easy to get down on ourselves when we experience friendly fire. Most people strive to perform well and do what’s right, and when we have a boss or colleague criticize our efforts it hurts deeply. Depending on our personality and emotional make up, it may lead to anger, bitterness, stress, resentment, self-doubt, and pity, just to name a few. Remember that this too shall past, and in the big scheme of things this is probably just a blip on the radar. Keep focused on all the positive things in your life such as the people you love, those who love you, the successes you’re having at work, the joy you experience from your hobbies, your spiritual faith, and the support of your family and friends.

As the American writer Elbert Hubbard said, the only way to avoid criticism is to do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing. Getting wounded by criticism stinks; there’s no two ways about it. But remembering these principles can help us keep things in perspective and maintain a strong defense against friendly fire.

How do you deal with unfair criticism? Feel free to leave a comment and share your wisdom with others.

32 Comments on “Surviving Friendly Fire: 8 Tips for Dealing with Unfair Criticism

  1. Randy,
    Very wise advice, all of it. Precisely the right way to think about (and act on) the situation.

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      • Hi Randy, thanks for the advice, it really resonates with my experience. Losing cool is the worst thing we can do and calmly understanding and responding rather than allowing emotional control to the person is the worst that we can do.

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      • Hi Ashok,

        Responding professionally is critically important and can be hard to do when youre feeling attacked. Im gld you found the article helpful.

        Randy

        Like

  2. Hi Randy
    A very insightful post. To be perfectly honest to me it makes a great difference who is criticizing me. I found out that people who fire at me are typically the ones that a less performing and it is easy for me to stay calm and professional. Only once someone I really admired fired at me. First of all I asked him why he spoke to me in such tone. It turned out that he was stressed out and simply not aware of it. We could sort it out in no time. My learning from this is that if you feel it hurts you it is best to be honest about it. Leader or not we are all human beings with feelings.
    Have a wonderful week.
    Brigitte

    Like

    • Thanks for sharing your personal experience Brigitte. I’ve also found that if friendly fire comes from a trusted and respected source, it’s usually out of frustration, stress, or being unaware of how they’re coming across.

      Take care,

      Randy

      Like

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  4. Terrific post! I have a follow up question, maybe for your follow up post! “What do you do when the friendly fire isn’t so friendly, as in someone is trying to make you the scape goat?”

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    • Great question Patty. I think the same principles apply as well as finding an appropriate and professional way to present the facts. You don’t have to retaliate and throw the other person under the bus – just let the facts speak for themselves.

      Randy

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  5. I like your information, It brought back a memory of dealing with a group of teachers who were nervous about change. They wanted everything to stay the same and do exactly what they had been doing for several years – using our “early out” days as an all day reward to those students who turned in all their work. Those that didn’t complete work were left inside or a separate room to work on “packets”. I proposed a compromise and told them what I’d learned over the years as an administrator dealing with parents. Parents appreciate teacher’s Recognizing their children’s hard work, but most parents felt that it was their job to Reward their children. We discussed the difference between Recognizing and Rewarding. I suggested 1/12 hours (versus their plan of 4 hours) to Recognize their students with some fun learning activity. I also encouraged them to offer remedial assistance, instead of packets of work, to those students who need the extra help. If the issue is not turning in work, maybe brainstorm with students on how to be more organized.
    I’ll have to admit, it didn’t come easy to change a “culture”, but over time we created a better compromise on how to Recognize our kiddos.

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    • What a great example, thanks for sharing! Navigating organizational change is tricky and the chances of getting hit by friendly fire certainly increase.

      Randy

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  6. Hi Randy, as another reader said, “great advice”. I’ve been the target of “friendly fire” and really had no idea on how to cope with it, so I was hurt, and became defensive. I’m sure after reading this article, that in the future (because this person has repeatedly targeted me) I will refer to what you’ve written here and it will be most helpful in helping me cope with it. I’m printing it and putting it in a place that I can refer back to it when needed (hopefully never). Thanks for helping point out the obvious, that isn’t always “obvious” to us.

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  7. This is particularly insightful and comprehensive. It delas with the full range of issues related to criticism. As a follow-up, any different advice if the person criticizing you makes a habit of criticizing others?

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  8. Randy, great post…and timely. As a productive sales rep and the highest producer here, I constantly come “under fire”. Your article helped me “just breathe” today. How do I encourage my boss to “assume innocence” instead of consistently take the position of making me wrong before learning the facts? Thank you in advance for your feedback.

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    • Ranelle,

      I’m so happy to know this article helped you. I would suggest you have a conversation with your boss about “assuming best intentions” rather than jumping to conclusions about your involvement/responsibility in any particular issue. My experience has shown that many times there are a multitude of reasons why problems happen in organizations and it’s rarely the fault of any one person. In fact, most of the time the problem is caused by process/system issues.

      Best regards,

      Randy

      Like

  9. Randy, Fully agree with your points. Personally I am more concerned with the people who overly flatter and compliment; with no basis or undeserved it is often disguised hostility.

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  10. This whole article is based on the premise that you will be unaware and unexpecting of the constructive feedback. In my business, and I class my business as my targets and respective kpi’s, I am intimately familiar with my performance and results. Therefore any feedback is not only expected but welcomed and in addition to this meeting with a manager, I would have developed my own plan to improve. This presented at the meeting provides evidence of capability and opportunities to improve.

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    • Thanks for the comments Grant. The article spoke primarily about unfair criticism, not constructive feedback. I agree with you that constructive feedback should be a welcomed opportunity for growth and learning.

      Take care,

      Randy

      Like

  11. Randy: Micro managers are famous for doing this. My immediate supervisor overreacts which causes me to react. He then goes to his supervisor without input from me with remarks that make him look good. Then, that supervisor goes to another who asks me to “just get along and don’t rock the boat.” I comply, but the immediate supervisor gets his way when he was wrong. How does subordinates get the message about guys like this to supervisors? In time, I’m sure the message will get there, but it’s very frustrating until then.

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    • Jerry – I feel for you; that is such a frustrating and challenging situation. Ultimately the only thing you can control is your own behavior, not how your supervisor or other colleagues react or behave. I encourage you to keep acting professionally and preserve your integrity. In time others will see the correctness of your actions.

      Best regards,

      Randy

      Like

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  14. Thanks Randy I needed to hear this
    Im currently in a hot friendly fire and some of the critics are not true they are personal and it hurts, people has turned against me Irene

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    • Hello Irene,

      I’m so sorry to hear that you’re experiencing friendly fire. I hope this article provides you some strategies for moving forward.

      Randy

      Like

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