What's one to do?
Everyone has a story of a nightmare boss. Why? Because overly critical people are in positions of authority with surprising frequency, and tend to be, well, memorable. They can be hurtful, insulting, angry, disapproving, intolerant, abusive—or any combination thereof.
People who work around them are often stressed out or shut down, operating in coping mode—avoiding touchy topics, withholding information, people-pleasing, flying below the person’s radar, and huddling with colleagues in mutual disdain for this difficult situation. You can’t help but wonder how so-and-so got to be such a jerk.
There are three main types:
- A bad template: there are some who adopt an angry, difficult style intentionally. Perhaps they had a boss who treated them badly and are simply copying it. They know it works, at least seems to, and they don’t have a better approach in their toolbox.
- Blind-spot: some are simply unaware of the shadow they cast / how they impact others, and, if they knew, might change their ways.
- Psychological issue: others have a psychological problem / are neurotic in a way that’s been reinforced, or at least not broken, and thus has been allowed to go on unchecked.
In my work with executive clients in the first two categories (I don’t work with the third type), I’ve learned they CAN change, but it takes tremendous focus on their part, persistent coaching, and an organization that fully backs their effort to change.
The same three types apply to organizations that tolerate or fail to deal with an excessively critical executive. When permission for this negative behavior is part of the culture (by commission or omission), not only is it counterproductive, it’s actually institutional abuse, not to mention bad for the bottom line.
Clearly, leadership is not about making the workplace a battlefield, nor should work time be measured in how much coping behavior is required to get through the day. These are NOT the conditions that support good people to do their best work. Quite the opposite, this highly critical approach turns otherwise capable, motivated people into physical labor—they show up, but their creativity, ingenuity, and drive to excel are absorbed with coping (and/or looking for other work,) so their contributions are marginal when compared to their potential.
Here's what can be done:
If YOU are or think you may be an excessively critical leader, then it may be worthwhile to get an evaluation done – that’s something an executive coach or leadership development person can help you do.Bravo for thinking you may have an issue.There’s hope for change in your recognition.
If you are WORKING FOR an overly critical leader, then it may be helpful to recognize the toll it’s taking on you, and that they’re likely NOT going to change, unless you see a significant and dedicated effort on their part to address their own issues head on.If you can tolerate it, or have done for a long period of time, then you’ve done a tremendous amount of work adapting to it.
To people in your shoes I always ask one key question: What would it be like for you to expend the majority of your energy doing your best at work, rather than coping with a difficult person? If you think the future could be brighter given better conditions for you to thrive, then perhaps it’s time to explore your options.
Whether you are overly critical or are working for such a boss, there are things that can and should be done to improve the situation.