How to Survive an Overly Critical Boss

Lots of criticism and no compliments can knock the wind out of your sails. When criticism feels unfair, it is even more demoralizing. Knowing how to discuss your boss's criticisms may be the difference between an angry blow-out and an improved working relationship.

(Photo Credit: University of Salford/Flickr)

Consider the Criticism

The first step in dealing with criticism at work is to step away from your ego and any negative, personal feelings you may have toward a critical boss. A brusque or rude boss who seems to offer criticism on a regular basis, but nary a compliment, lacks both leadership and interpersonal skills. This does not mean his perception of your work quality is wrong.

Think through the specific criticisms, and try to be objective in looking for validity. Are you aware that you did something poorly? Is there something you can do better? Can you learn from the experience? How will you improve?

Sometimes criticism is unfair, and it is up to you to determine how much of your boss's criticism is constructive and how much is unfair.

Dealing With Unfair Criticism

If you feel that you need to speak with your boss about unfair criticism, be careful to avoid confrontation. "You were unfair to me" is confrontational. Instead, frame the conversation, which should likely be held in private, as a discussion.

Discuss your concerns, not your boss's behavior. This is a subtle difference that does not put blame on your boss. "This is what I accomplished; I am concerned about..." or "I am feeling..." There is no guarantee that your boss will be receptive, but you may stack the odds in your favor by focusing on your work, your desire to do well, and your concerns. You may even say, "your feedback felt unfair," but do not simply accuse your boss of being unfair.

Your goal in this discussion should be mutual understanding with your boss, and a joint focus on quality and productivity. You and your boss are on the same team, and you are less likely to suffer retribution if show that you are interested in doing a good job.

Dealing With Stress

The above advice is likely to help a large majority of the people who follow it. However, some bosses are highly critical and not open to the idea that they can ever be too harsh or unfair. This creates stress in some employees.

The American Psychological Association (APA) points out that what causes incredible emotional stress for one employee is not a big deal to another employee. Step one in dealing with stress is recognizing specifically what causes you stress. If it is a critical boss, try the above advice. The sense of empowerment that you get from feeling that you can discuss things with your boss may alleviate the stress, leaving you with more emotional energy to dedicate to your work.

Tell Us What You Think

Do you have a highly critical boss? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.


  1. 8 Derrick 08 Jul
    I would not go to HR. People think HR is there to help them. It is not. It's for the employer of the higher level person in the company.
  2. 7 Samantha 23 Jan
    I made a mistake at work and wasn't aware of it for a while. When it was brought to my attention, I immediately went into action to fix the problem. I apologized to the co-worker affected by my error. Hours later my boss approached me to ask what happened. This is a pattern with him. Every day he magnifies my errors, especially on Friday evenings as I'm about to leave for the weekend. My gut feeling's to find another job and resign, but I like the company and a lot of its employees. I feel like every day that I go into work is one day closer to be fired because my boss is building a case against me.
  3. 6 Sandra Stolzy 02 Nov
    Leslie-I would like to comment. I hope this isn't too late, I see you posted in Aug 2014. I too have a job with a female boss who is much younger than I, and very critical. Although I feel I am working at maximum speed, she is not on site and takes all complaints from the people we serve. There are few that have positive comments. I guess that is human nature. One of the things I know is that people are rarely motivated to change. Your boss obviously likes being more "distant". Mine talks through an intermediary boss, who is basically a puppet. He repeats things I say off the cuff to her, which I have now realized is a problem. Another co-worker just started who is experiencing the same things, criticism and no where to vent. Find a buddy, someone to have coffee with, or a glass of wine, outside of work. You could pay to go to a shrink, but a buddy will be cheaper and probably more effective. We all need to vent and de-stress. Take care of yourself and you will be able to handle the daily negatives. He is probably not going to change. He wants to change you. Be open to changing what you can, and set your boundaries on not changing, examining your motives carefully. Sometimes being willing to change, and doing it, will help your boss realize the "old way" might have been better-or some variation thereof. I am sure you are doing a great job-keep telling yourself that. He may never acknowledge it, or recognize it. Accept that. Be your own cheerleader and find a friend (preferably at work) you can really trust. This may take time. Older people can have younger friends. Reach out and invite someone for a meal, a lunch, a coffee. You will be surprised how mutual support can do you so much good. Good luck and keep your eye on your prize of retirement !
  4. 5 carl eady 08 Sep
    It has been like that a long time tell me what we can do to change the situation. We as African American have a hard time anyway will it get better
  5. 4 latoya 07 Sep
    I have had a couple of bosses like tht but I just learned to ignore them because if you feed into it things gt worse
  6. 3 Gerald V. McKenna, LMHC 07 Sep
    Leslie, I would ask someone you trust from Human Resources for an "off the record" meeting and be totally open and honest. Watch their body language to see if this is beyond their expertise OR are they another "victim" who are too afraid to stick up for themselves--look for lack of eye contact, arms crossed, legs crossed to protect their genitalia. If this person is a dud try a co-worker you trust OR go to his boss and relate your story as harassment--close to sexual harassment AS IT MAKES YOU FEEL X Y Z violated, anxious (true--discuss meds) threatened. Make certain that you contrast his number of crappy notes in your file. To be on the safe side you may want to consult a lawyer who is a specialist in this field--labor relations--harassment etc. If you have a Union talk to them first. A few visits to a Counselor or Social Worker---NOT A PhD OR EDD OR MD PSYCHIATRIST. Make all your visits totally focused on the harassment and weird crap this guy does--notes--no face to face--the filing cabinets etc. YOU CAN CONFRONT HIM YOURSELF BUT ONLY IF YOU HAVE A WITNESS---ON YOUR SIDE---NEVER MEET ALONE WITH HIM. IF HE FORCES THE ISSUE GO TO HR AND/OR PLACE A TAPE RECORDER IN PLAIN SITE!
  7. 2 christia kilburn 07 Sep
    i would love to work from home
  8. 1 Leslie 26 Aug
    We are just 2 in the office with others running various facets of the department. They do not come to the office for very long on any given day. I have been at my position for 26 years. Less than a year ago, the powers that be chose a young man 40 years my junior to head the department and be my boss. In fact, I have been at my job longer than he has been alive. He is very driven and has made many changes. While I am older, I love the changes and have fully embraced them with joy and a positive attitude. I'm a 21st century kind of gal! Much to my bewilderment, I deal with a great deal of critical toning from my boss. I am noticeably treated differently. I have had more things placed in my file in the lat 6 months than in the other 25 years. This should be a red flag to the administration, but they all think he's doing a fabulous job..which he is, except for how he treats me. We share an office, so there is no privacy. That is until he placed the filing cabinets between our desks preventing us from seeing each other. He rarely speaks to me and I get numerous emails a day with directives. It is rare that he will discuss something and then send an email with the details. I manage silently with my duties. Thankfully I have numerous phone calls and deal with the public daily. I am reaching the end of my tolerance for the bullying and the critical toning that only I and any unfortunate sales person calling or showing up in person gets handed. I want to confront him in a nonthreatening way, but I really don't know how to approach him and I really need the bullying to stop. I was on stress medication for awhile, but it made me forgetful and caused yet more disciplinary letters to go in my file. I am off it now and walk and workout daily to cope. I want to go to the administration with my problem, but will anyone believe me? He is the golden boy. I mean this sincerely. Do you think he feels threatened by me since I do my job without motivation? I know what needs to be done and when. I am loaded with the old ways in knowledge. Do you think it's my age or that I am a female? I totally love my job and was hoping to make it through 2015 before retiring. I don' think I can last an entire year unless his attitude changes towards me. I hope you have some advice for me! Thank you.


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