How to Criticize (Without Looking Like a Jerk)

Get-It-Done Guy helps you keep things running smoothly by delivering criticism without the sting. 

Stever Robbins
5-minute read
Episode #348

Sometimes it's really obvious when someone else screwed up. And of course, we just have to correct them. Otherwise, the world as we know it will stop.

So right there at the team meeting, we put on our best diplomacy hat and say, "You know, your user interface design really was confusing. I'll send you a memo telling you what you did wrong and how to fix it later this afternoon."

Your target smiles and says, "Thank you for your offer."

The next day, your goldfish are floating upside down in your fish tank, your car tires seem to be missing some air, and your hard drive accidentally reformats itself.

Coincidence? I think not.

The problem is that despite your extraordinary attempt at diplomaticy, you pointed out to someone that they screwed up.

This happens with colleagues and also with strangers. Have you ever tried to cross a crosswalk? Cars are supposed to stop behind the Stop line to let pedestrians walk across. And yet, often some driver (not you, I'm sure) will stop right in the middle of the crosswalk and pedestrians have to walk around their car in order to cross.

Everyone Is an Ogre

The driver never actually looks like an inconsiderate, law-breaking oaf with no respect or consideration for other people. They always look like a nice person. Then you tap their window and say, politely, "Excuse me, you're blocking the crosswalk. Please stop behind the line next time." They look at you and start to get red in the face. Their formerly curly hair start to straighten out and stand on end. Steam comes out of their ears. They puff out their cheeks, and they yell, "You a—hole! Get your f—ing butt out of the street before I drive over you and don't ever f—ing talk to me again!!!"

They are clearly in the wrong. They are breaking the law, being inconsiderate, and generally being a lousy prom date. But when you politely point out that they are wrong, they act like a great ape deprived of its favorite banana. Because in fact, they are.

People Value Their Self-Image

You see, no one appreciates being confronted with immediate, obvious, incontrovertible, undeniable evidence of their own wrong-doing. Our favorite banana is our self-image. And most of us have self-images that we're upstanding angels who are perfect and have good reasons for the things we do.

Science, of course, has thoroughly debunked that. All of us are a mix of admirable and icky qualities. As shocking as it may be for you to consider, please realize that even I am not perfect. (I know, unbelievable, right?)

Just ask me to cook. I use pre-prepared ingredients, like pre-marinated chicken, reheatable pierogies, and chocolate craze Balance Bars. It's my personal version of mole sauce.

When you make someone realize they're wrong, you're taking away their self-image banana and replacing it with a rotten turnip. They're mad about trading their banana for a turnip. It really has nothing to do with you. You're just the catalyst for their self-realization and an easy target for when they go postal about it.


About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.