How to Cope With a Critical Boss

Updated on June 10, 2020
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Sally is a business communications coach who gives workshops on how to keep your professional reputation squeaky-clean and drama-free.

Being criticized at work is never fun. When it's your boss berating you for a mistake you made or being picky about tiny details, being on the receiving end of verbal criticism can ruin your day. When the criticism from your boss seems relentless, it can have a negative impact on your motivation and productivity. If you are having a hard time dealing with a critical boss, these interpersonal communication tips might help.

Having a Picky Boss Can Feel Like He's Always Pointing a Finger at You

How do you cope when your boss criticizes you at work?
How do you cope when your boss criticizes you at work?

Many people who face endless criticism from a bad boss wind up quitting. Here are some ways to get to the heart of the criticism and deal with it appropriately so that you don't have to pack it in and find another job.

So why is criticism at work hard to cope with? Well, criticism can sometimes pack a one-two punch and hit you right where it hurts. First, criticism can have a negative effect on your self-image. Your self-image is how you see yourself. You can have a positive self-image or a negative self-image. Most people have things they like about themselves and things they don’t like about themselves. For instance, some people may have unwavering confidence in their intelligence but when it comes to how they feel about their physical appearance, they're their own worst critic. For someone like that, an attack on her intelligence might not hurt as much as being called fat and ugly by a bully. The attack on her intelligence doesn’t sting because it doesn’t fit with how she feels about herself. But because she believes that she is ‘fat and ugly’ when someone insults her in this way, the criticism can touch a nerve.

Criticism can also impact your public image. Your public image is the way you would like other people to perceive you. If you take great pride in being honest and transparent in all your interactions because you were raised to tell the truth, an attack on your honesty and character can be devastating.

There are appropriate ways to deal with criticism at work. Hiding your face in shame and embarrassment isn't one of them.
There are appropriate ways to deal with criticism at work. Hiding your face in shame and embarrassment isn't one of them.

How should you deal with a boss who is always critical of you? First, let’s look at some of the unhealthy ways to deal with criticism not just at work but in other areas of your life as well.

Withdrawing. Withdrawing from someone criticizing you is also known as ‘walking away.’ When harsh judgments are directed at you, instead of replying, you stay silent. You may even get up and leave the situation. In some cases, walking away is the safest thing to do, especially if the attack is coming from someone you don’t know and will likely never have to deal with again. But let’s say the criticism is not coming from some drunk angry stranger that you hope to never see again. Let’s say the criticism is coming from your supervisor. You will have to deal your boss again and so ignoring him might not be the best way to go.

Rationalizing. This could also be considered ‘giving an excuse’ for whatever behavior is being negatively evaluated. For example, if your boss asks you why you didn’t show up for the presentation he had planned for all the staff, you could offer up the excuse, “I was just so busy with my work that I forgot all about it.” And while giving an explanation for why you behaved the way you did might seem like a reasonable way to deal with criticism, it will likely leave the other person feeling let down. Your boss might even cite you for insubordination; he is your boss after all and he should get a better response than a weak excuse.

Counterattacking. When people are feeling really defensive and they can’t even offer an excuse to rationalize the behavior of which they’ve been accused, they often deploy the counterattack. At best, your rebuttal comes across as defensive. At worst, it comes across as childish and shallow. Trying to steer the negative attention away from yourself by responding to criticism with criticism of your own is not a productive or mature way to deal with a verbal attack.

The best way to handle a criticism from your boss is to respond in a non-defensive manner. This method of dealing with a verbal attack does require patience, and sometimes a thick skin. It’s not always easy to respond calmly and rationally when someone criticizes you, but in the workplace, it is the only way to respond if you want to preserve your work relationships, not to mention your reputation for professionalism. Here are some steps to take to deal with verbal criticism by practicing non-defensiveness.

Listen. When your boss starts to berate you, it can be tempting to want to interject with a defensive reply or deflect attention from yourself by bringing up irrelevant points and comments. These types of replies will only make it harder for you to calm the critic down because you've immediately jumped into a defensive engagement. To prevent yourself from doing this, make sure that you focus on listening very carefully to what is being said. You may find out that the reason your supervisor is upset isn’t really because you used up all the copy paper. Rather your boss is upset because he's working under a tight deadline and is stressed out right now. Blaming you for her not having enough paper is only part of a bigger problem that really isn’t about you at all.

Acknowledge. Instead of withdrawing from your critic and shying away from a meaningful discussion about both his and your perspectives, show that you have heard what the critic has said. This could be done through a combination of facial expressions, nods, and body language. Acknowledge the other person's feelings with phrases such as “I understand that the way I acted in the meeting has made you angry.” At this point in the conversation, you're simply stating what you're noticing about the present interaction. It's possible to acknowledge someone’s feelings without accepting responsibility for them. Later on, as the conversation progresses you may find that an apology is the best response but in the beginning of the interaction focus on giving your boss your full attention. You can’t respond to his negative comments effectively if you don’t have all the information.

Clarify or ask a question. The key to effectively resolving a conflict or dealing with criticism at work is to make sure you have as much information as possible. If your critic is speaking in fits and angry tones it may be hard to understand what the real issue is. You are entitled to ask a question or clarify what the concern is if someone is attacking you verbally. Asking a question will do three things; it will give you time to think through your response; it will give you the information you need to respond appropriately; and by making the critic stop for a moment and think about what they're accusing you of, you may give them pause to stop and re-consider their argument. They may find that when they have to explain the criticism in detail, their argument loses steam and they realize that their anger is unwarranted.

If appropriate, agree with your critic. When you have had a chance to listen to your critic's concerns without becoming defensive, you may find that what he is saying has some truth to it. Not all criticism is bad. Sometimes criticism is what is needed for you to learn, grow, and become more aware of yourself and your impact on others. If you find that there's some truth in the criticism being directed at you, there's no shame in admitting that. Sett aside the delivery of the criticism (angry, emotional, etc) and focus on taking responsibility for your actions.

Propose a solution. Whether or not your boss's accusation has merit, you can still work with them to find a solution that will help solve his problems. If you were criticized for not following through on a commitment you made, tell your boss what steps you will take to make sure your oversight won't happen again.

You can't let praise or criticism get to you. It's a weakness to get caught up in either one.

— John Wooden

Using a non-defensive approach to your interpersonal communications is not just useful for times when you feel under attack. It's also a useful strategy for ensuring you're initiating conversations and interactions with others that won’t make them feel like they're being criticized.


Tips adapted from Dealing with Verbal Criticism, Interpersonal Skills Advanced Communication Skills Manual, Toastmasters International.


This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2016 Sally Hayes


Submit a Comment
  • AshutoshJoshi06 profile image

    Ashutosh Joshi 

    3 years ago from New Delhi, India

    Been there done that, I can totally relate to the situation but I think there are times when you just have too let go. Constant critisim can be stressing especially when you fail to pin point problem area or suggest apt. amends and I think that's where a lot of bosses fail - making a valid point!

    Its increasingly becoming evident that employees dont leave companies but they leave bosses, so there's definatly a problem that isnt uni-directional.


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