How to Cope with Critical Co-workers

Got a critical co-worker in your life? Ever wonder what planet they came from? It’s possible they have been that way all their lives and you are just the latest casualty. I’m sure it’s not because you are overly sensitive. (Truly!)

How to cope with critical people

(Image credit: Eric Schickler)

I’ve had a lot of co-workers over the years. I’ve served in the military. I’ve worked in Human Resources, a warehouse, legal office and City Communications Dept. I’ve blogged for a Mayor and cleaned stalls on a 400-head horse farm. (You should have seen me on top of the hay cart, jumping up and down to compress the soggy straw.)

I also worked in a call center, manning the phones in a cubicle farm with 400 others. We shared space with someone on an opposite shift, some of whom were verrrrry particular about THEIR side of the desk.

Yep, heaven help you if you were paired with a person who wanted everything organized just-so. By golly, if they came in to work and saw things out of order, you were in for trouble. Turf wars erupted over 4 ft. x 3 ft. slabs of particle board.

After I became a supervisor, one of our reps stormed into my office and said, “I won’t take it any more! If I find my things all messed up one more time, I’m going to HR.”

Thinking her desk must be one heck of a disaster area, I asked her what happened. She said, “I’ve told ‘Mary’ to keep her hands off my stuff. But today, I came in and she’d moved my stapler over to her side of the desk. MY stapler!”

Seriously? (Shades of the movie, Office Space!)

Sometimes people take the most minor of transgressions as life-or-death threats. They read into words or behaviors, take offense easily and feel it’s their duty to set others straight, “for their own good.” They are critical beyond belief and can make you feel like you’re walking on eggshells much of the time.

Then there’s others who let things roll off their back like water on a duck. There’s got to be a reason why some folks are more critical than others. Let me explore a reason or two. Here’s why I think they behave as they do:

CRITICAL PERSONALITY STYLES

It’s possible your critical friend may have an over-the-top perfectionist personality style. What style is that? Well, I believe EVERY personality style has the potential for being overly critical. It just depends on what’s important to you and what motivates you.

Here’s what I mean using four traits from the DISC behavioral styles profile:

Dominant (D) people want results and tend to be okay with conflict. So just imagine you’re not producing results as quickly as they’d like. They are driven by getting things done and can get quite antsy if there’s a slowdown somewhere along the line. If they believe you’re not taking action or you lack results, they can be quite critical and forceful at the same time.

Influencers (I) like interaction and try to persuade others. Their reputation is also important to them. What would happen if you don’t “engage”, ignore them or disregard their recommendations? They’re going to wonder why you don’t communicate and will probably take it personally. These folks can be critical if they feel you don’t focus enough on relationships.

Steadiness (S) folks like to cooperate with others. So what if you happen to be a lone wolf and chafe at decisions by committee? Or, what if you’re in a leadership role and don’t get input from others before making a big decision? You might be criticized by these folks who value a collaborative work environment.

Conscientious (C) people value quality and accuracy. If you live by the 80/20 Rule and feel most things are good enough, how might a high “C” individual react? They like to follow the rules, policies and procedures and don’t take kindly to people who play fast and loose with standards. Because they also value a businesslike work environment, you could be criticized if you’re too much of a party person who likes to socialize.

Pick any one of those behavioral styles and then add circumstances where the critical person felt there was little to risk by expressing their opinion. Perhaps they saw what damage could be done should you continue your “evil” ways. Maybe these people could give a rip whether your feelings got hurt or not because your infraction was so egregious. Sometimes they believe your inability (or unwillingness) to meet their needs is a personal affront, an attack or a challenge.

See how things could snowball?

CRITICISM AS A DEFENSE MECHANISM

There are other reasons why some folks can be more critical than others. Sometimes the critical person has been taken advantage of so often in their life that being overly critical is a defense mechanism. They point out your flaws before they get done-unto again. Taking you down a peg is a way of making themselves feel better about their own perceived inadequacies.

People who feel they have very little control in their life may try to regain it by also being overly critical of others. Faced with limited resources and shrinking options, finding fault can be a way to establish authority, attract attention and expand their influence. Let’s face it, many will defer to critical people so they don’t become a target and feel the lash of their tongue. Not everyone has the bench strength to combat that kind of aggression.

CRITICISM AS A CAREER

Some careers require critique as part of the job description. Accuracy and quality are especially key in fields that deal with explosives, insurance claims, medicine, law, accounting, sending a space shuttle to the moon, containing a contagious virus, etc. Being right is very important when you’re in that line of work. And sometimes they will judge us based on our ability to be accurate in areas that may not seem too important – to us.

A few years ago, I pulled into the parking lot of a hospital where I had been hired to facilitate a Personality Styles and Teambuilding Seminar for their senior medical team. The Hospital Administrator, Chief Nurse, HR Director and other key folks would attend.

There was plenty of room in that parking lot and I was in a bit of a hurry, so I didn’t pay close attention to the way I positioned my car. I got out. I emptied my trunk of all my training paraphernalia, loaded up and started to walk away. Then I glanced back and was horrified to see that I’d straddled two parking spots and my car was crooked. Very crooked. It looked like a drunk person had been behind the wheel.

I stood there and pondered. Do I take the time to put everything down, get back in the car and straighten it out? Or do I just leave it there, thinking my spot at the end of the lot would never be noticed?

Grrr! Someone might see me if I left it like that. They’d think I was goofy. How would it look for the oh-so-professional businesswoman to keep her car parked that way? So I moved it, just in case one of my session participants was watching.

And since everything in my life becomes training material, I used this example to kick off my session on personality styles.

I told them, “I moved my car not because it was important for me to be accurate. I moved it because, as a high “I” individual on DISC, I want to have a positive influence over others. I don’t want people to think I have sloppy habits.”

From the back of the room came a snort and a laugh. “I was watching you out there this morning and wondered what kind of nut job would park her car like that. It’s a good thing you moved it ‘cause otherwise I’d wonder if you were credible enough to do this training.”

There ya go! I was in front of an audience whose job it was to focus on quality and accuracy. In their minds, if I couldn’t park between the lines, then how could they consider me a credible expert on anything else? Was it overly critical to discount my knowledge just because of the way I parked my car? Or did it make perfect sense considering their whole world revolved around doing things right? After all, they’re in the business of saving lives. Details matter.

You see? Same behavior – very different motivations.

Same thing goes for loading the dishwasher. My engineer cousin likes it loaded “just so” to ensure things are properly arranged for maximum water flow and cleanliness. I am fussy about loading the dishwasher so it looks good. We can’t have things thrown in there all haphazardly now can we? An aesthetically pleasing dishwasher “look and feel” is what I’m after. Same behavior – different motivations. 

CRITICISM AS EXCELLENCE

Some say that criticism is necessary in order to achieve excellence. After all, how can things get better if you’re not willing to critique, identify flaws and make improvements? I’m totally supportive of seeking quality outcomes. People have been killed because someone got sloppy with the details.

But just like some use knowledge of personality styles to excuse bad behavior (“It’s just the way I am, so get used to it”), people also use a pursuit of excellent to justify maintaining the status quo or lambasting others for the most minuscule of mistakes.

Leadership gurus urge us to “fail forward”. Organizations say they want innovation and creativity. But that often comes as a result of trying (and failing) numerous times. We must be cautious not to allow our enthusiasm for excellence to discourage risk-taking. Making a difference often means we must leave the safety zone of tried-and-true and “poke the box” as Seth Godin says. 

“We’re too focused on how do I avoid criticism and not focused enough on how to make a difference.” –Seth Godin

KEEP PERSPECTIVE

Criticism can really ruin your day if you don’t maintain perspective. We’re all going to be subject to some kind of feedback that may not be pleasant. There are people out there who want to do us harm.

I once spoke at a national conference and mistakenly used the word “its” without an apostrophe. (Apostrophes are the bane of my existence!) A week or so later, I got a scathing letter from someone in Hollywood CA. No name. Just a postmark. They’d attended my session. They circled the word “its” on my handout and said I should go back to fifth grade english before presenting in public. After I picked myself up off the floor, I put that love note in my files to show my kids if they ever get cut off at the knees by a critical person. If not for the wildfire burning my files, I’d have shown you the letter.

You can’t let someone with an ax to grind keep you from sharing your knowledge, wisdom, skills and experience. People depend on you for a hundred and one other reasons than your ability to dot the i’s and cross the t’s. You won’t be perfect. You’ll screw up. You’ll say things that are stupid and regret them later. But if you shut down because a few wackos criticize your efforts, the world will lose out.

10 THINGS TO ASK YOURSELF WHEN YOU ARE CRITICIZED

  1. On a scale from 1-10, how earth shaking is this?
  2. Is the critical person someone who’s important to me? Are they someone I respect? Is it likely I’ll ever see them again?
  3. Given their input, would I do things differently in the future?
  4. What’s at risk if I changed my approach based on their criticism? What if I didn’t?
  5. Are they going through tough times right now? Would they normally be this critical? Can I cut them some slack given their circumstances?
  6. What can I learn from their critique? Is there one small nugget of knowledge that can benefit me?
  7. Can I use this example to teach my children or grandchildren something valuable?
  8. How much is too much before I say something or ask for an apology?
  9. How much time or energy am I willing to spend worrying about this?
  10. What will I do if they continue this pattern? Would I leave my job over this?

10 TIPS FOR CRITICAL PEOPLE

As I’ve said above, we all have the potential to be critical of others. You might be tired, hungry, cold, sick, stressed and something will come out of your mouth that you’ll regret later. You may not intend to cause harm. Or maybe you’re a mean person with an ax to grind. Either way, ask yourself these questions before you criticize:

  1. Are you trying to build them up, knock them down or embarrass them?
  2. Do you want this person to feel like a failure?
  3. Are you trying to get back at them for something?
  4. Is it more important for you to be right or be kind?
  5. Do you have their best interests at heart?
  6. Will someone get hurt or die because of this?
  7. Is there some hole in yourself you’re trying to fill by criticizing others?
  8. How many withdrawals can you make from this emotional bank account before it ruins the relationship?
  9. Are you willing to receive feedback from them as well?
  10. Is there a better way to be helpful or make your point?

NEXT STEPS

At your next team meeting or when you’re out in the field, ask yourselves how you define criticism. How do you see it play out in the workplace? Is it constructive or destructive? What’s the benefit? Brainstorm better ways of giving feedback.

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