Sooner or later…sooner if you’re in a leadership position…you will get thrown under the bus by receiving unfair criticism from a boss or colleague.
Unfair criticism 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 it shows up when a colleague criticizes you in an effort to deflect attention from his/her own shortcomings. Regardless of the cause or circumstance, unfair criticism hurts. It erodes trust between people, causes rifts in relationships, and stymies effective teamwork. You can’t control when you get thrown under the bus, but you can choose how to respond. Here are 8 tips on how to respond to unfair criticism:
1. Remember that your response shapes your reputation – Above all else, remember this point: the way you choose to respond to criticism 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 unfair criticism 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 the unfair criticism is often symptoms of a deeper problem or issue. When you encounter criticism, 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 – It’s helpful to put yourself in the other person’s shoes in order to understand their motivation for being unfairly critical. 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 critics and unfair criticism 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 unfair criticism 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 the friendly fire of criticism from our colleagues. 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 when we’re thrown under the bus.
How do you deal with unfair criticism? Feel free to leave a comment and share your wisdom with others.
Brilliant insights and advice. Thank you have shared this everywhere I can:)
That’s great Dionne! I’m glad you found it helpful.
Cheers Randy, Please call me ‘Drewie’ or I think I am in trouble!!
What if the thrower is an egotistical narcissist whom other people have complained about? I’m really struggling to continue working this person after being unfairly accused. I now see them as toxic and after an initial reconciliation attempt, we simply tolerate each other now. I’ve never been in a situation like this(never even had a bad review), and it continues to cause great stress. How does one stop a toxic employee? The company continues to employ them because they’ve made this person a project to improve.
Btw this was also my first experience with anonymous 360 peer reviews at work. Talk about the worst idea ever. Especially if you choose to retain employees whom you already know are toxic.
I can empathize with your situation. At some point you have a choice to make: control what you can control and make the best of it, or look to change your situation by moving to another position or employer. I’ve found that many times you can “wait them out.” Eventually the process usually works where those kinds of performers are weeded out.
Best of luck,
I have found in my workplace that the chronic complainers and chronic tattletales over time are taking less and less seriously by management.
Try to take some comfort in that fact.
Thanks, Randy. Very helpful. I’ll share these pointers with others. I find it vital to remember that my self-worth and identity are in something—actually Someone—way bigger than any criticizer.
So true Michael! It’s essential to know who you are and whose you are.
Lots of responsibilities and actions for the person whose been thrown under the bus. No accountability for the a##holes who repeatedly use the tactic.
I say talk with others within the social circle to gauge their experience with the perpetrator and develop a strategy to disempower and remove the offender.
“Throw enough sh*t against a wall and some will stick”. This is the tactic used by people who want control over a person or situation without going through the rigors of education, experience and considerate discourse.
This was really good. A team of 3 of us was recently thrown under the bus. Something had changed, and I wasn’t sure what it was. So, there is an opportunity to get to the root cause. It’s unfortunate that we don’t have a culture of the team taking ownership and looking at ways where we all could have learned something and found a way to mitigate the problem before the mistake was made. However, I think I will have to tread lightly.
I think some people dislike being held accountable for their actions and state they are being ‘thrown under the bus’ when in actuality, they are refusing ownership of their negligent actions.
True. But if there is a level of dishonesty by the person doing the throwing then there is a sense of betrayal and surprise. Otherwise, it’s just a normal conversation or meeting.
I thought this article to be very insightful but concise. I think enormous pressure in the workplace intensifies this kind of dynamic. It always seems to be at its worst when people are not aware of their own projections into others- however well you manage or are managed by others you cannot always influence what others project. I would be interested in others comments about this.
Recently, I had to work with a few different people and soon found myself in the scapegoat role yet again. One day one of them messaged me asking why I did a certain thing on the project. The weird part is he actually told me to do it! While everyone else was accusing me I posted a screenshot of what he said. It was so obvious he said it but he still denied saying. Then, I suppose he told everyone on the project to go through him first because I never got another direct email from any of them. The worst part is I found out he was doing all sorts of questionable things like lying on forms. He’s since accused me of all sorts of things that I’ve had defend myself against. Some of the things were so blatantly obvious he was projecting his transgressions onto me. I stepped away from the project two months ago but I got another accusatory message from him again the other day. I’m ferling harrassed and can barely open my email without anxiety attacks. Finally, I wrote them all and said that I will no longer accept that accusatory behaviour. He messaged me with an onslaught of 11 messages! I haven’t read them yet for fear of further trauma. I tried to talk about it to a few friends but nobody is taking me seriously. I don’t know what to do and feel like a scapegoat especially since he is contacting me months later about things.
I’m sorry to hear about the challenges you’re experiencing. I definitely sounds like something you should address with your manager and/or your colleague’s manager. I imagine your HR department would also be a good resource.
I hope things start to improve for you.