How to cope with a critical manager

Does your boss constantly point out your mistakes?  Can she find fault in everything you do?  If so, you probably have a critical manager.  As a perfectionist, she feels it is her duty to point out everyone’s flaws.

Finger pointing at you, with man in the background

Photo by a2gemma

Over time, that constant criticism chips away at your sense of self-worth.  Combine that with a boss who refuses to recognize your contributions at work, and you’re definitely in a toxic situation.

Some signs that you work for a critical manager:

  • You feel like you can’t do anything well, in your manager’s opinion
  • You spend a lot of time checking your work to avoid mistakes
  • You worry most of the time about what faults your boss will point out
  • Even when you accomplish something, it’s never enough
  • You avoid your boss so you don’t have to hear his criticism

But you can cope with a critical boss.  Below are some suggestions for disengaging from your critical boss, not taking the criticism personally, and dealing with a critical manager.

Disengage from your critical boss

The first step in coping with a critical manager is to disengage from him or her.  Stop concentrating on your bad boss, and start focusing on you.

Accept that you can’t control the behavior of another person.  If you’ve ever raised or been a teenager, you know this is true.  The only person whose behavior you can control is your own.

When you’re dealing with a faultfinding manager, accept that you can never satisfy her.  She’s a perfectionist who is compelled to find a flaw in everything.  Trying to change her into a non-critical person will only frustrate you.  Let her therapist work on that.

Accepting someone’s bad behavior doesn’t mean you approve of that behavior.  It just means you acknowledge that it exists and can’t change it.  You get over it and move on.

Once you accept your manager’s flaws (how ironic, since she doesn’t), start rebuilding your self-assurance.  Can you find ways to help other people at work?  Maybe someone outside your workgroup can give you credit for a job well done.  Look for ways to get involved with a task force, event, or committee away from your boss.

Another way to rebuild your confidence at work is to achieve small personal goals.  This way you’ll start to feel successful on a small level.  Maybe you can finish something from your task list that you’ve been putting off.  Or something as simple as cleaning out your email or as powerful as updating your resume.  It may not seem like much, but when you’re feeling worthless thanks to a hyper-critical boss, every little bit of success helps you regain your personal power.

Follow this up at home by writing down your daily achievements.  Just because your boss ignores your success doesn’t mean you have to.  When you get home every day, write down at least three things you accomplished at work, no matter how small.  I’m sure you help at least three people every day.  Write those down.

Spend time outside of work with friends or colleagues who recognize your abilities and success. Grab a beer together after work.  But instead of whining about your horrible boss, tell your co-drinkers what you admire about each one of them.  They’ll probably return the favor.

Don’t take the criticism personally

Your boss’s bad behavior isn’t about you.  It’s about him.  You’re probably not the only person he treats this way.  He isn’t criticizing you because you’re horrible at your work.  He does it because he’s a compulsive nitpicker.  You didn’t cause your manager’s critical personality.  It was already there, long before you started working for him.

Your manager’s criticism has nothing to do with your value as a person and employee.  It’s the only way he knows how to relate to people.  He thinks he’s helping you improve by pointing out your mistakes.  He does it to everyone, so don’t take it personally.

Remind yourself that your boss’s negative comments are opinion, not fact.  An overly critical manager is compelled to find fault with everything anyone does.  That doesn’t mean the criticism is true.

Defending yourself to this type of boss doesn’t work.  No matter what you do, and no matter how well you do it, you can’t change a critical manager’s bad behavior.  Instead of arguing with your boss about your work, try saying, “Thanks for letting me know.”  Make any corrections you feel are justified, and let go of the rest.

More tips for dealing with a critical manager

If your boss constantly points out mistakes in your work, you might be tempted to work long hours to avoid making mistakes.  Don’t waste your time.  Your manager is insecure.  She feels better when she criticizes other people. Even if your work is perfect, she is compelled to say something negative about it.  Do your normal wonderful work, ignore her negative feedback, and get started on your next task.

It may help to take notes when your boss is criticizing your work.  That way you can look at them later to decide which suggestions may help, and which are worthless opinions.  Or you can run them through the paper shredder.

No matter what, don’t accept your supervisor’s comments as true statements of your worth. Don’t keep telling yourself that you’re stupid, or you always make mistakes, or whatever other negative stuff your boss says.  For one reason, it’s not true.  Your boss has to find fault to make himself feel important.  You are a valuable contributor at work, or you wouldn’t still be working there.  For another reason, your worth does not depend on your job.  Your life has meaning no matter what your boss says.

Sometimes it helps to talk to someone else. Be careful about talking to your manager’s boss, another manager, or someone in Human Resources.  Their first alliance is to the company, not you.  They tend to side with your boss, and may even repeat to him or her what you say.  Find a trusted person, either at work or outside the office, who will listen.  Tell them up front whether you want them to just commiserate or help solve the problem.  Take a deep breath and/or a strong shot of vodka, and let loose.

Do what you can to relieve the stress of working for a constant critic.  Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths.  Go outside and take a walk in the fresh air and sunshine.  Make a joke and laugh it off.  Get a massage.  Have a drink or two when you get home from work.  Have pity on your manager and his family for having to live with him.  Be grateful you have a job and a life away from it.  Take steps to rebuild your confidence.

The final suggestion for working with a critical manager is to find another job working with a better one.  There are great bosses out there.  I’m sorry you got stuck with a bad one.  You can’t control your manager’s behavior, but you can control whom you work for.  Maybe you can look for a more positive place to work, or for a manager who better supports you.

If you’re a manager, and you find fault in everything your employees do, maybe it’s not them.  Maybe it’s you.  Do you dish out only negative criticism?  If you do, try balancing it with some positive criticism.  Constructive criticism is a more compassionate approach.  Its aim is to show that while the person did good work, the goal could be better achieved by a different route.