Coping with Criticism: How to Stop Being Defensive at Work

Angry manager and assistant look to employee for explanation during meeting in office roomHave you ever felt defensive at work? Do you bristle when you receive unjust or unhelpful criticism? You aren’t alone. Defensiveness may come easily to us in the workplace. Even when we recognize our defensive reactions are neither helpful nor healthy—a difficult but essential first step toward change—it can be a challenge to accept this and begin to react without defensiveness.

Why Being Defensive Rarely Helps

Most of us start out feeling as if we are entitled to our defensiveness. I understand this, as I’ve often felt the same way. If people would just stop being so confrontational, we might think, it would be easy to not be defensive. If they just stopped attacking us over the phone, in emails, or in meetings, there would be no reason for defensiveness.

The problem with taking a defensive approach? We can only control our own behavior. We cannot control what other people do or how they treat us. How we act or react only affects the other person’s behavior to a certain extent.

As individuals, we are entitled to our feelings. As a therapist, I believe that and honor that. I also believe it is important to recognize that reacting in certain ways just isn’t helpful at times and may even impact us negatively, even when our feelings are justified. Sometimes, it is possible to view a situation in a way that is more constructive. Looking at a situation in a different way can often help us make better choices for ourselves.

Coping with Criticism Productively

When we get defensive, we are reacting to the feeling of being attacked. But think about this: How many people at work can physically attack you? Do emotional or verbal attacks actually say anything true about your self-worth or your abilities?

If you are dealing with actual physical threats at work, it may be better not to go back at all. In that situation, I would almost certainly quit immediately. As far as the hurtful words other people might use, though, it helps to remember that your coworkers often don’t know you well, if at all. What they say tells you more about them than it does about you.

Becoming defensive in the face of criticism will only appear to validate the critique, but it can still be difficult to accept undeserved or unduly harsh criticism calmly, especially if the person putting you down is your boss or supervisor. When someone says something critical to you that gets under your skin, consider two things:

  • Who made the comment or offered the criticism?
  • How much it the criticism likely to matter six months from now?

If you don’t report to the person who made the critical comment, chances are it doesn’t matter at all. If you report to the person who offered the criticism but it’s not likely to matter in six months’ time, it still probably doesn’t matter so much.

If the criticism came from your boss and may have long-lasting implications, take it seriously, but not before taking a deep breath and gathering your thoughts. In general, we get a paycheck for going to work and doing the work assigned to us, in the way we are told to do it. This is not the definition of the most exciting or fulfilling job, but many of our jobs are defined along these lines. If you find your defensiveness is frequently triggered at work, your job may be less fulfilling than you desire or require it to be.

Try avoiding defensiveness by remembering you have nothing to be defensive about. Do the best you can with the information and resources you have available, and be confident that your work is the best you can provide.

It may be the case that your boss frequently asks you to do something one way only to later say you should complete the task a different way. Or perhaps your boss (or a client) has asked you to do something in a way that makes little sense, but they don’t understand or want to hear your concerns. These situations can be extremely frustrating when we take pride in our work and want to do a good job. But we won’t be remembered for small or simple tasks like these, and sometimes, the best thing to do is get a project completed and out of your life. Whether we cry, complain, send a nasty email, or storm out of the office, we are still unlikely to get others to take our part. In fact, doing any of these things is more likely to give a manager a sign they were right about you. After all, why would you react in such a way, unless they struck a nerve?

Realistically, not many employees tend to react in such a way, perhaps because they don’t care enough or because they have stopped listening to management completely. Being truly upset by unfair or unjust criticism doesn’t make a person a bad employee. Constant upset at work can cause emotional disruptions, though, and these can impact well-being. These reactions can further encourage a boss who is a bit of a bully to pick on you, though, once they begin to see you as an “easy target.”

If you can, when criticized, maintain a calm and polite manner. Look the person making the comment in the eye and say something like, “I am sorry you are not satisfied with the way I completed this task. I understood this to be how you wanted me to approach it. If you have suggestions, I would be happy to fix it.” You may be able to end any confrontation right there.

Take some of your power back by separating your identity from your work. This can be especially helpful for those who work a difficult job. Take breaks when you can get them and eat lunch away from your desk—away from the office, if possible. Do your work, and when you leave, truly leave. Don’t work extra hours, unless you absolutely have to in order to complete work that truly matters to you. Try to keep these to a minimum, though—working more than five additional hours every week may help management deny that they either need to hire more people or make some changes to their processes and procedures, if not both.

Dedicate some time each day for self-care. Taking care of yourself, whatever this means to you, can be of great help in maintaining a positive and confident frame of mind at work, even in the face of frequent criticism. Physical activity such as walking, yoga, dancing, or swimming can have a significant positive impact on your mental and emotional well-being in day-to-day life, even when much of it is spent in an unpredictable work environment.

Try avoiding defensiveness by remembering you have nothing to be defensive about. Do the best you can with the information and resources you have available, and be confident that your work is the best you can provide. If things outside of your control affect your work, try not to let this affect you. Don’t take the consequences for someone else’s choices.

If you struggle to remain calm and productive in the face of constant criticism, consider speaking to a therapist. A compassionate and qualified counselor can offer advice and more specific strategies tailored to your situation.

© Copyright 2017 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Amy Armstrong, MS, NCC, MCC, LPC, Topic Expert

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • BradleyG

    April 7th, 2017 at 9:49 AM

    What makes something like this so hard for me is that I love my job field and really my job so I pour a lot of time and energy into it.
    So to have something that I worked so hard on criticized and undermined it makes me feel like what I did was worthless.
    I do think that I have to buck up a bit and be able to see things as more constructive than critical but also know that there is a way to do this with someone who works for you that will not make them feel like a failure.

  • Kalla

    April 10th, 2017 at 7:45 AM

    This was something that was easier for me to do when I was young than it is now that I have been in my position for a while. I think that when you are first starting out you want to learn from others and you take it as being helpful.
    But now I am good at my job, I have been here a while and although I open to doing things differently I don’t think that I need someone to tell me how to do my job. I feel pretty accomplished so why step in and bother someone when you could be working on improving your own self?

  • BrentB

    April 15th, 2017 at 6:16 AM

    if the battles are always about the small stuff choose your battles wisely and let the rest of it go

  • Sondra

    December 2nd, 2018 at 9:41 AM

    I do get defensive at work, and I always realize, 48 hours later, what a mistake it was! I think when we are corrected at work, we feel as if all the good things we did aren’t appreciate. I think the key is to do your best, take any criticism as either useless or possible ways to improve, and then move on. Honestly, I wish I had a button I could press so I could put off my defensiveness for 48 hours. I usually end up feeling embarrassed.

  • Alexandria

    May 15th, 2019 at 4:26 PM

    I think my issue is, sometimes, there needs to be room for explanation. I don’t think it’s being defensive, it is just explaining why it was the best decision or what steps could be taken to avoid it next time. I never have an issue with admitting my mistakes, but when I do something that I was told to do, or didn’t originally agree with. I need the space to explain why the situation happened as well as the steps I will take to correct it – even if it means to not accept or complete certain assignments.

  • Chandler

    July 14th, 2023 at 3:36 PM

    When I face defensive behavior from others, I try my best to let them know what I meant by my comment or actions. If I am the one feeling defensive, I step back and try to understand what the others said or did and try to move forward with a positive approach.

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