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.