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How to Handle Unfair Criticism From Managers

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"Welcome criticism" is almost an oxymoron, and nowhere more so than at work. When your manager criticizes your work, it's difficult enough. But if the criticism seems unfair it can be especially hard to take. Rather than let unfair criticism ruin your work life, take steps to handle it effectively.

Constructive Criticism, Destructive Managers

Any criticism can seem unfair if you feel you are doing your best. Separating what you're hearing from what your manager is saying, however, can help you to determine whether or not the criticism is really unfair, or just delivered poorly. Even good managers sometimes stumble when critiquing employees' work, and managers who are not well-trained at delivering constructive criticism may deliver unfair criticism by mistake. The trick is listening for cues that let you know whether the criticism is unfair or just badly delivered. If you feel that the criticism is unfair, you must develop a plan to deal with it effectively rather than simply sulk or react in a negative manner. Be prepared to gather facts and evidence to support your case.

Listening to Criticism

Handling any kind of criticism well comes down to one important factor -- listening. Criticism is difficult to hear in the best of conditions, but when it's unwarranted or unfair, it can be doubly hard to listen to. That's when you need to listen the hardest. Don't mount your defense while your manager is still speaking or you risk missing important points. Instead, take notes and ask questions to clarify how you could have handled a situation differently. When you receive unfair criticism, it is important to make note of your boss' points so you can refute each one in a logical and effective manner.

Keep Your Cool

The worst thing you can do when you're on the receiving end of unfair criticism is to lash out. Escalating an already difficult situation by losing your temper or coming back with a response you haven't had time to think out carefully will likely make matters worse. Take a deep breath. Ask for a few minutes, or even a few days, to respond. Go back over any notes you've taken, reports you've generated, or any other pertinent information to gather proof the criticism was unwarranted, and ask for a meeting with your boss to discuss your side of the situation. In an article in "The Wall Street Journal," Margaret Morford, chief executive of management consulting firm The HR Edge, said that "when your boss sees you can handle a little criticism without blowing it up into a huge uncomfortable discussion, he [or] she will get increasingly more candid and [give] helpful feedback."

Seek Outside Feedback

Choose your battles carefully. If the criticism is a one-time incident, do what you can to avoid the problem in the future and move on. If unfair criticism becomes a pattern, however, it may be time to tell your boss that you don't understand where the criticism is coming from and ask if another manager or someone from HR can sit in on a meeting and give feedback on how your performance can improve. Sometimes, it takes no more than a third party to turn unfair criticism into a constructive critique that can make you a better employee and your manager a better boss.


A writer and information professional, J.E. Cornett has a Bachelor of Arts in English from Lincoln Memorial University and a Master of Science in library and information science from the University of Kentucky. A former newspaper reporter with two Kentucky Press Association awards to her credit, she has over 10 years experience writing professionally.

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