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  • Writer's pictureSarah Butler

Dealing With Unfair Criticism At Work

Criticism is a part of life, but it can be difficult to cope when it's unfair. We all have moments of self-doubt, but it's important to remember that criticism, whether it's fair or not, doesn't define us. Accepting and learning from constructive feedback is key to developing resilience, but it's also important to recognise when it is unfounded or unfair. By understanding how to assertively manage unjust criticism, it's possible to move forward confidently with your head held high.



Understanding criticism

Criticism is a misfired form of feedback that's aimed at improving something. It's important to note that feedback doesn't always have to be negative; praise can also be considered a form of feedback. But when feedback is not constructive it becomes criticism and when criticism is delivered in an unfair way, it can be difficult to receive, process, and respond to assertively. Whereas constructive feedback is aimed at behaviours, criticism is often felt as a personal attack.


By understanding what criticism is and how it can differ to constructive feedback, it's possible to better manage the impact of unfair criticism. Criticism is a natural part of life, and it can be helpful when delivered in a constructive and fair way as feedback. It can help us to improve and learn from our mistakes. However, criticism can be especially damaging when it's constant and unfair. It can take a heavy emotional and mental toll and make it increasingly difficult to cope and move forward.


Fair criticism (or constructive feedback)

Constructive feedback is intended to promote a positive change in the behaviour of an individual. It is focused on improving performance and skills, and is usually provided in a supportive and encouraging manner. Constructive feedback is specific and relevant to the situation. It should also be balanced with positive comments so that the recipient can focus on the areas they need to improve without feeling discouraged. Constructive feedback can be used to identify areas of growth, build relationships, and help people reach their goals.


Constructive and respectful feedback is given in a non-threatening way and includes factual statements. The emphasis is on the actions that need to be taken, not the person who is responsible. For example, a manager might say to an employee after a presentation: "The slides were not as impactful as they could have been. If there was less text, people would have paid more attention to you instead of trying to read the slides. Adding pictures would make it more engaging next time."


Types of unfair criticism

Criticism that's destructive or malicious is most likely unfair. There are many ways criticism can be unfair. Some common examples are listed here:


Invalidation

Dismisses your feelings or experiences. It may invalidate your identity, such as your ethnicity, gender, or beliefs.

Shaming

Puts you down and attempts to make you feel bad about yourself.

Bullying

Attacks your personality, values, or quirks. It may involve name-calling and threats.

Guilt-tripping

Makes you feel needlessly blameworthy for something.

Invalid Data

Uses false information, flawed research or skewing of facts to make its point.

Bad Advice

Gives advice that is unhelpful, intentionally damaging, or doesn't apply to you.


Criticism that is considered unfair often comes in a sharp and blunt tone, making sweeping statements and vague assertions, sometimes in the presence of others. But what really marks out criticism as being unfair is when the objections "melt away" when you question them rationally.


Identifying unfair criticism

By recognising the signs of unfair criticism, you can better differentiate it from constructive feedback and thus receive and deal with it in the correct way.


Tone

Is the person speaking to you in a calm and level tone? Or do they seem emotional and upset?

Content

Does the criticism make sense? If you don't understand why you're being criticised, it could be unfair.

Intention

Is the person criticising you trying to help you make improvements or are they simply trying to put you down?

Effect

Are you feeling upset and emotional after being criticised? If so, it may be unfair.

Who

Is the criticism coming from someone who has your best interests at heart, such as a mentor, or from someone who may be biased? Is it really about you or are you just the unfortunate person in the vicinity?


Also ask:

  • What's in it for them?

  • What is their motivation?

  • What are they aiming to achieve with this comment?

  • How is their life right now - happy or unhappy?

  • What are they getting from this?

  • What do they want from me right now?

What's common to these questions is that they focus on the other person rather than on you and therefore it is a lot gentler on yourself.



Responding to Unfair Criticism

It is easy to become defensive when criticised, and it's normal to feel emotions such as shock, humiliation, distress, fear, or to shed tears. Criticism implies that something was done incorrectly, or that the standards of performance have not been met. Therefore, it is essential to take the right initial reaction as it can either worsen or improve the situation.

Also, remember that it's not always necessary to respond. Depending on the situation, there are a few strategies that may be helpful.


Stay calm

It is important to remain composed when confronted with criticism, whether it is from a colleague or your manager. Showing that you are upset will just further complicate the situation and give the person criticising you the upper hand. It could also negatively impact your reputation.


In the event that you need more than a few moments to calm down, let the person know that you need some time to think of a response and will return with it later. If the feedback was sent to you via email or social media, don't immediately respond to it in the heat of the moment - many careers have been ruined this way.


Ask for clarification and repeat the criticism

If you don't understand the criticism, it can be helpful to ask for clarification. A change in the way the criticism is worded may alter the way you receive and understand it and turn it from unfair criticism to constructive feedback that was just handled clumsily. Think about the intent it was delivered with - was it done with the intent of being helpful or being deliberately destructive?


When dealing with criticisms in person, it is important to make sure that the person's comments are understood. Maintain eye contact and use a non-threatening voice to restate their words back to them. The main aim is to shift the focus from how the comment is affecting you to the actual problem at hand, rather than immediately accepting or denying the criticism. It is likely that a more hostile individual is attempting to get you to react with anger or to make you feel defeated. Remain factual and don't be overly dramatic in order to appear reasonable and keen to find a solution.


Respond with a positive attitude

Responding emotionally to hurtful criticism can make you appear defensive and just feed into the cycle of negativity. Responding with openness and positivity can be a much more effective way to end the cycle and put the person serving the criticism on the back foot and therefore lose their momentum.


It is important to demonstrate respect when engaging in a conversation. You can do this by showing that you are receptive to the other person's point of view. If the criticism is too general, don't hesitate to ask for more information. For instance, if your manager states that they didn't like your last report, probe for specifics. Employ active listening techniques so that you can get a better grasp of the criticism being offered, as opposed to simply nodding along in anticipation of your own response.


Suggest a follow-up meeting

It can be a helpful tactic might be to suggest a meeting to hash out your differences. Even if you find your critic's reasoning flawed, don't discount the chance that you might have something to learn. The two of you might come up with an improved strategy together, and you'll emerge from the interaction with a reputation as a team player who pursues the best interests of the company.


If it is from someone you manage

In the event that one of your team questions your work, show that you have listened and are giving it thought. Is the feedback justifiable or are they just upset? If it is reasonable, act on it and prove that you are doing so. Demonstrate the humility to recognise your mistake and take action to rectify the situation.


However, if you decide that the assessment is unjust, dispute it with composure and sensibly. Don't just wield power and end the debate. You may need to speak with your employee about underlying issues that have led to their criticism.


Remember you are role-modelling the response you would like to see in them when they deal with feedback.


If it is from your manager

If it is your boss who is criticising you, you should arrange a meeting to listen to them. If they are right, accept their opinion and modify your actions accordingly. If you believe that they don't understand, try to persuade them to your point of view. If that fails, it may be necessary to meet with a higher authority or the HR department - however, these are an absolute last resort. Such action may endanger your position. Always be as composed and reasoned as possible when presenting your case in this way.


Read more about how to disagree with your manager here.


Do you need to refer it on?

If the person who is criticising you still won't stop, and you are sure they are mistaken, you should look for a higher-ranking individual to give an opinion. (This is especially crucial if you feel like you are being harassed). Take care to not make any personal accusations. Instead, precisely express both sides of the disagreement and let them know that you understand their opinion, however, your point of view is more accurate. Remain composed and clear-headed. Even if your manager does not back you up, you will be seen as someone who has a balanced view and is ready to consider different perspectives. If you keep the team's objectives in mind, rather than any individual or professional ones, you should be able to come to an agreement that works for everyone.


Move on

In the event that your critic continues to be unwilling to change their position, it is best to make a polite departure from the situation. You could say something like, "I understand and I am grateful for the advice, and it's something I can consider for the future." This will make you appear to be someone who is earnestly attempting to do their job as well as possible while shifting the focus to moving on positively.


Maintaining your self-worth

Going through unnecessarily harsh feedback can be rough, regardless of how you manage the situation. Therefore, it is essential that you don't let it bring down your self-worth or self-assurance.


At times, criticism is unfair because it is just wrong. In other cases, it is unfair because it is referring to something that is unrelated to how you do your job. In any case, remember that it is exposing the bad qualities in your critic, not in you.


If you still can't stop thinking about it, use techniques like thought recognition, reframing and positive thinking to make it clear to yourself that you, your abilities and your actions did not deserve the criticism that you experienced.


Does it matter?

Generally, when we receive criticism, it affects our self-esteem. So why do we believe this opinion? What does the individual who is criticising us know about our actual nature? Why do we give much regard to such a one-sided and limited view? It is probably because we don't think highly of ourselves.


Think over this. If you have a positive opinion of yourself, and I criticise you, what will be your response? You are probably going to question what kind of distorted view I have and what is wrong with me that I am behaving like this.


If you are sure of your own opinion of yourself, you are more likely to think about 'me' and my attitude rather than about yourself, which is the place the concentration should be in such a situation.



Conclusion

Unfair criticism is the expression of disapproval of someone or something based on perceived faults or mistakes. It is criticism that is unwarranted or unjustified, and it can be damaging to those who experience it. Unfair criticism can be an attack on your character, abilities, or accomplishments, and it can have a negative impact on your self-esteem and confidence. It can also be a form of bullying or harassment, which can have serious consequences. Unfair criticism can come from anyone, including peers, team members, or employers, and it is important to develop strategies for handling and responding to it in a constructive way.


It can be difficult to differentiate between fair and unfair criticism. Constructive feedback can help to promote personal growth and development, but negative statements may have the opposite effect. Although it is understandable to be heightened in the face of unjust criticism, this is rarely beneficial to your career. Try to remain composed, ask for clarifications of remarks, and indicate that you understand them. If the criticism is the result of a misunderstanding or an alternative point of view, the issue should be easily resolved. When the situation is more complicated, particularly if the critic is your supervisor, it is best to arrange a meeting to go over the criticism in its entirety. Above all remain positive and professional, dealing with the matter assertively and then moving on.

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