Leadership Caffeine™: Coping with Workplace Critics

Rule #17: If the flak is heavy, you’re near the target.  (No flak, no target.) From Management Lessons of the Memphis Belle copyright: Eric Lieberman and Paul Byrne

I’ve yet to accomplish anything worth a damn when I didn’t have a fair number of critics lined up and all too happy to tell me why I was out of my mind. It’s a fair bet you’ve seen this before as well.

In my experience, the more audacious and creative the idea, program or strategy, the more vocal the critics become.

“We can’t do that.”

“It will never work.”

“We tried that three years ago, and it didn’t work then and it won’t work now.”

Or the old standby, “You’re out of your mind.”

A Fortune 50 client of mine has a sign in their learning center that reads something to the effect of, “You’ll be told No too many times to count.  Keep pushing for what you believe in or we’re in trouble.”

I love that!

The Destructive Power of Workplace Critics:

If you’ve ever found yourself suddenly under fire from one or more sources for an idea or program, you recognize how annoying and potentially destructive the criticism can be.  And I’m not talking about someone offering a good, objective alternative viewpoint, I’m talking about the global criticism of your initiative and attempts to discredit you in the process.

The worst of the critics seem to thrive on sewing doubt and pushing others off-balance. It’s a form of bullying carried over from the playground days.  The location has changed, but the tools of the critic’s trade are well honed from years of practice.  Rumor, innuendo, disparaging comments, and in-your-face attacks are all tools of the critic’s trade.

Critic or Devil’s Advocate?

It’s important to differentiate between the useful, formal role of Devil’s Advocate and the Office Critic I’ve described above. The Devil’s Advocate is supposed to poke holes in ideas and challenge groups to look at the world through a different set of eyes.  Proper devil’s advocacy isn’t about derailing or destabilizing.  It’s about challenging people to think harder and to look in different directions. Executed properly, the person playing the role helps identify potentially flawed decisions or directions and encourages fresh thoughts.

The Critic’s motives are often political or at least selfishly personal. Change represents stress and work for the critic. Worse yet, it provides an opportunity for others to see beneath the painstakingly constructed illusions that many corporate critics work so hard to foster about their own contributions.

5 Ideas for Coping with Workplace Critics:

1. Always check the view from the critic’s perspective. I’m all for understanding the views of others…including critics.  If someone has a different way of looking at things, I want to try and get a glimpse of the situation through their eyes.  It’s unlikely you or I have thought of everything, so, take the time to learn from even your harshest critics.

2. Invite a Critic to Your Table. On occasion, a critic is someone who hasn’t figured out a more elegant way of asking for a seat at your table.  Your willingness to provide a seat might build a new ally.  Just don’t count on it.  And there’s a bit of truth in the notion of keeping your enemies close at hand.  Besides, good groups are pretty effective at self-policing.

3. Duel with a Critic, But Only on Your Terms: I observed as a great idea person (who happened to be a master politician) effectively maneuvered her biggest critic into a bake-off.  Idea versus idea.  Political capital versus political capital.  The critic had nothing but bluster and blather and was effectively vanquished in the court of project team opinion.

4. Shrug Off the Critics. (That’s my polite form of, “Don’t let the bastards slow you down.” In my experience, the naysayers tend not to be those holding decision-making power.  Build your coalition and your support with those that control the resources and the decision-making power and you effectively neutralize critics.

5. Deliver on your ideas. Nothing silences critics like success.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Your path to project or career success will likely be filled with obstacles, setbacks and in some cases, people not particularly interested in seeing you succeed.  A good colleague uses the barbs of her critics as fuel for her own performance.  “Every shot they take helps me work that much harder to succeed.” Certainly taking strength from unfounded criticism and unqualified critics is much more effective than letting it get to you.

And remember:

-“You’ll be told No too many times to count.  Keep pushing for what you believe in or we’re in trouble.”

-“Rule #17 If the flak is heavy, you’re near the target.  (No flak, no target.)”

Art Petty coaches, trains and speaks on leadership development, high performance team development, feedback and decision-making. Drop Art a note to talk about a workshop program, speaking opportunity or coaching need.

About the Author:

Art Petty is a coach, speaker and workshop presenter focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. When he is not speaking, Art serves senior executives, business owners and high potential professionals as a coach and strategy advisor. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.


  1. Kira A. Wirges April 4, 2011 at 11:05 am - Reply

    Art – I find that almost everyone is a critic, even myself, at times. Most people don’t like change, so how can you determine if coworkers are actually true critic’s or just doing something that is part of their human nature? Additionally, I liked your idea about “Inviting a Critic to Your Table.” This part is critical because sometimes giving them you’re prospective and reasons for change helps people adjust to the new environment or additional work. Thanks, Kira

    • Art Petty April 4, 2011 at 11:08 am - Reply

      Kira, these characters are fairly easy to spot. They tend not to create value, and they are quick to highlight why you’re wrong. All of the time. Offering a constructive comment or suggesting an alternative view doesn’t make you a Chronic Workplace Critic. Some Corporate Critics are beyond rehabilitation. -Art

  2. Christian Fey April 4, 2011 at 4:12 pm - Reply

    Art, I completely agree. Team dynamics are critical to success in any organization, and critics cause problems to everyone involved. As you said, constructive criticism should always be welcome, but when that moves beyond constructive into mere idea-bashing, someone gets upset, and the team’s productivity falls to zero.

    I actually wrote a post on my blog about engineers who exhibit these symptoms. If you have some time, take a look 🙂


    There’s a followup linked at the bottom about how to deal with them.

    Thanks for the post!

  3. Robert Comer April 4, 2011 at 5:07 pm - Reply

    Great post Art,

    I agree with you totally. Many people are afraid of change, because of the unknowns and loss of the comfort zone. Here is another saying for those that fight for new ideas.” Winners never quit and quitters never win”. I wounder if its still in the weight room wall at old Arlington High School, ha.

    • Art Petty April 4, 2011 at 5:17 pm - Reply

      Bob, there’s something comforting about that classic and very true saying. As for it being on the wall in Arlington, I’m guessing not. The building is still there, but the school has been left to the ages. Thanks for reading and commenting! -Art

  4. Alex B April 5, 2011 at 5:47 pm - Reply

    In highly competitive work environments the playground bullying tactics can be rampant. The best leaders harnass the ‘barbs’ and transform criticism into fuel. Reminds me of my days on the basketball court. Everytime I got knocked down I got up with more energy and fire than before. Hear your critics–if you channel their negativity effectively you can achieve more than you initially expected.

  5. William Seidman April 23, 2011 at 12:11 pm - Reply

    This is a great post.

    It makes me think of Jeffrey Pfeffer’s book “The Knowing-Doing Gap.” In this book, Jeff (who is a professor at Standford Business School) shows that most managers and executives in organizations know what they should do but frequently don’t do what they know because critics block action.

    We have found a very effective means of coping with these nay-sayers. Taking the approach of positive deviants, we always focus on getting people to think about and act on how to do something “right.” More specifically, when we encounter critics, we say to them: “Thanks for your input, now tell us how to do this particular function the right way.”

    This has a very interesting effect. Most criticism is a free ride without accountability for the destruction it causes. When people are first legitimized, but then held accountable for generating a solution, it is remarkable how quickly they stop criticizing others. This works all of the time.

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