Love them or loathe them, they’re out there! If you haven’t come across one in your lifetime yet, consider yourself lucky. I have had the misfortune to come across a few in my working career and honestly, I don’t feel better for it.
Fortunately, they’re easier to avoid outside of work.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m all up for feedback and improving my performance however when the feedback feels like nitpicking and makes you feel useless then you know it’s more about them than it is about you. Something I wish I’d known when it first happened to me.
Over the years I have learned that these people struggle to experience joy, because if they did, what would there be to give feedback on? Many I believe are looking for perfection to help them feel safe and control their environment. Another way they can do this is to take great pleasure in picking out ‘mistakes’ and bringing them to your attention. This strategy also helps them feel better than you if they feel threatened by your skills, knowledge or network. In the past I’ve often heard these people proudly say, “I don’t come to work to make friends.” If you hear anyone say this, know they are a nitpicker with limited emotions and steer clear. Nitpickers often feel isolated and achieve their goal of no friends at work.
If you are experiencing a nitpicker, here are 7 strategies you can use to deal with them.
1. It's not personal
It’s a safe bet that it's not you, it's them. Some people just hug their negativity around them like a security blanket, and it impacts how they see the world. They criticize everything because that suits them. Watch how they treat other people and I’m betting they criticize everyone in the same way, it’s not just reserved for you.
2. Listen to the message
Is the person clouding the message? Perhaps your critical colleague or friend is tactless, or bad at expressing themselves rather than being mean. Try to see past the person delivering the message and try to understand what is really being said, otherwise you might miss out on some valuable advice.
3. Accept the feedback
With hypercritical people what you see is what you get! And you can decide to accept feedback based on its merits, just like positive feedback, as it could be a source of honest feedback. If you can see past the blunt delivery, you may be able to find a kernel of truth that can improve the way you do things for next time.
4. Deal with your discomfort
Criticism never feels good. Notice how you feel when you’re receiving it and try to understand those feelings of discomfort as another source of information. Does the feeling you’re experiencing connect back to a negative feedback feeling in the past? Does the negative feedback trigger a recognition deep within you? Maybe you are subconsciously reminded of someone or a past event, or maybe there’s a ring of truth in the feedback that you are resisting. Sit with your discomfort and see what it’s telling you.
5. Create some distance
In my situation the person was a program manager on a big project I was a part of. There was no way I could stay out of their way or avoid them as they needed to be across the work I was doing. The way I chose to manage it was to minimize my contact with the person and provide more email updates than verbal ones. I think the person preferred it because then they didn’t have to take care of any emotions.
I recognize this isn’t always possible however it became clear to me that in order to stay on the project, I needed some distance. If there was a meeting I needed to attend, I could prepare myself mentally for it beforehand unlike an impromptu hallway conversation.
If you naturally shy away from feedback then look to minimize the likelihood of situations where you are likely to get given feedback, especially from people who are likely to criticize you. Don’t ask for advice or expose yourself to their negativity. They’re not likely to change, so you need to take control and avoid those conversations. Choose who you share your news with, good or bad, avoiding the likelihood of a hypercritical person particularly if you know they’ll throw cold water on it, don’t seek their praise if you know you won’t get it.
6. It's your choice
You have a choice about how to deal with negative people. You can decide not to engage with their negativity, you can ignore them, or you can just avoid them altogether. If you must have contact with a negative person at work, for example, be helpful but don’t engage with them beyond the task at hand. Ultimately, it's up to you whether you want to have any contact with such negativity, or not.
7. The brave option
I recently had a coaching client who was experiencing bad behavior from a colleague. My client was unable to avoid this person and recognized the impact of this behaviour on the broader team. After many sessions discussing the situation my client decided to have a feedback conversation with this individual as it had started to impact his own performance at work. I’m pleased to say that the conversation went well. The person took the feedback in the way it was intended and shared how shocked he was, that that was how he was perceived. As a result, the person has started modifying his behaviour.
Sometimes it pays to provide feedback back, however you do need to choose your moments and your words.