Last updated April 23, 2024

Criticism is something that we all face now and again at work and sometimes the criticism is fair and sometimes not. If the criticism is unfair and unwarranted, you might be wondering how best to handle unfair criticism at work to avoid personal stress and to avoid making the situation worse. There are techniques that you can use to respond and deal with criticism positively and these techniques and tips are explained below.

Manage and handle unfair criticism at work

There are four key techniques that I recommend using, all of which offer you a way to take control of the situation.

Fair criticism?

If you recognize that the criticism is fair and true, then you might simply accept it and take responsibility.

In a work situation, your manager or whoever is criticizing you might feel that it is the only way to make you aware of the situation.

It might also be that the critic could be more constructive and diplomatic but, if it is fair criticism, there is rarely any point in fighting it.

How do you handle unfair criticism at work?

1. Disagreeing

If you do not think that the criticism is fair, you can simply disagree with it.

The key, in this case though, is to maintain a confident and calm body language and voice.

You do not want to come across as aggressive or passive.

For example, if someone accuses you of always being late but you know it isn’t true, you can reply ‘No, I’m not always late. I might be late occasionally, but I’m certainly not always late.’

Tips for handling criticism at work
Slide from the PPT PowerPoint Assertiveness Materials and how to handle unfair criticism at work

2. Negative Enquiry

This technique involves asking questions to find out more about the criticism, to assess if it is valid and what points you might need to address.

For example, if someone says to you, ‘The report you wrote was dreadful’ you can reply by asking, ‘What exactly did you find dreadful about it?’

This technique has a positive equivalent, for receiving compliments assertively.

For example, if someone says to you, ‘The report you wrote was amazing’ you can reply by asking, ‘Thank, you. I’m glad you liked it. What did you like the most about it?’

3. Fogging and Phrases to Respond to Criticism Examples

This technique is useful when you receive unfair or manipulating criticism and you want to avoid reacting aggressively (and getting into an argument) or passively (feeling bad about yourself and giving in to any request, as you feel guilty).

The fogging technique (so-called because you put up a wall of fog into which arguments are thrown but not returned), serves to diffuse a situation.

The technique consists in agreeing with any truths that may be contained within a statement or phrase while ignoring other aspects of the criticism.

You can agree in one of three ways, which are:

  • in part
  • in probability
  • and in principle.

You agree in part when you recognize that in the statement there is a bit of truth.

For example, someone says, ‘You are late, you are absolutely useless at keeping to your word and I can never rely on you’ and you can reply, ‘Yes, you are right in saying that I am late this time’.

Another example might be, ‘This report is all over the place, you are useless at your job’ and you reply ‘Yes, I could have structured this report a bit better’.

You agree in probability when you don’t agree with the criticism, but you admit that there may be a possibility, however remote, that the critic might be right.

For example, ‘If you use provider X instead of Y, you will not get the order delivered on time’ and you reply, ‘You are right, the order may not be on time’.

You agree in principle when you disagree with the criticism but you admit that the logic might be right.

For example, ‘You should have that spreadsheet checked by somebody else, as there may be mistakes’ and you reply, ‘You are right, it is useful to have one’s work double-checked for mistakes by other people sometimes.’

When you use fogging it is important to listen carefully to what the other person is saying, so you can choose what to agree with.

Also, you need to keep a calm and relaxed demeanor, otherwise, you can come across as sarcastic and mocking.

Try to keep detached by not letting any personal element of the criticism annoy you and don’t respond by criticizing the other person.

Also, don’t deny any criticism that you receive, and don’t get drawn into doing something you don’t want to do just because the other person thinks you should.

In addition to the techniques we have discussed, remember the following tips when handling criticism.

4. Relax and Listen

We all handle criticism at work in a different way, but one step we can all take is to keep calm and listen carefully to what the other person is saying.

This is the only way to decide if the criticism is fair or just destructive; if there is some truth in it and how to respond.

Some people fail to listen and jump to conclusions, whereas the criticism really might not be as bad as you otherwise think when you do not listen.

5. Respond to the Content, not the Tone

Only consider what is being said. Try to ignore the tone, if it is aggressive or sarcastic, for instance.

Separate the issue from the emotional elements.

In other words, there is no point in you getting stressed even if the critic is.

6. Don’t Respond Immediately

Take time to think, if needed, to avoid saying something you might regret.

In most situations, we have the time to consider the criticism, especially when we work with colleagues we see every day.

The old adage that we should sleep on it, meaning take a day to consider it, is always an extremely good idea when it comes to handling criticism.

7. Ask the Critic Questions to Better Understand

As we mentioned before concerning the negative inquiry technique, delve into the criticism by asking questions to the critic so that you can better understand the validity or not of the points made.

This is particularly useful if you think that beneath it all there might be some useful feedback to be had.

Interview Questions and Criticism

1. How Do You Answer – How Do You Handle Unfair Criticism in the Workplace?

A popular question in job interviews that comes up time and time again is the question of how you would deal with unfair criticism in the workplace.

This question understandably helps interviews to assess how you might fit into a team and how you might deal with your colleagues.

The best way to answer this question is to offer constructive ideas such as those used in the tips above. So, just to reiterate:

  • Relax and listen
  • Respond to the content and not the tone
  • Take time to respond
  • If needed, ask questions to better understand the points being made to you
  • Work out if the criticism is fair and if so accept it
  • Do not get sidelined and don’t bring up other issues and personal grievances

2. How Would You Ignore Criticism at Work?

The answer I suggest giving if asked in an interview how to avoid criticism, is to explain that you don’t.

Rather than ignoring it, it is best to use one of the techniques discussed above, i.e to either:

  • Accept the points made
  • Disagree (but politely) with the criticism
  • Use the negative inquiry technique
  • Or use the fogging technique

3. What Does It Mean to Handle Criticism Positively?

A lot of the time, when criticism is made, it is not intended as a personal attack, and understanding this can be important.

To handle it all positively, you will:

  • avoid any personal attacks on the person in response
  • take time to consider fairly the criticism made
  • React in a considered and positive manner in reply to the critic


What are the effects of constant criticism at work?

The effects include:
1. Drop in employee and team morale
2. High rates of employee turnover
3. Drop in productivity and efficency
4. The company might gain a bad reputation as a poor place to work
5. Lack of innovation and willingness to take any risks

What is an example of unfair criticism at work?

Your manager has handed you far more work that it is realistic or fair to ask you to do. As a result you deliver poorer results because you simply lacked enough time. It would be unfair to blame you.

What to do if your manager unfairly criticises you too often?

If you find that your direct manager is often highly critical of you and borderline bullies you, consider talking directly with the HR (Human Resources) department. Alternatively you might be able to talk to the union if you have one.

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Dr Valeria Lo Iacono
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