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Managing a Covert Critic

Combat the everyone’s-dumb-but-me syndrome

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in Leaders & Managers,Office Management

Some staffers will do almost anything to get noticed. They’ll take all the credit, make outlandish demands and insist that you’re the best boss ever.

Crafty employees also bolster their standing by criticizing other workers’ contributions. Some of them openly brag about how they had to correct a coworker’s work. But others operate covertly, and they’re the ones to watch:

The suffering souls constantly “fix” others’ work. They sigh loudly whenever they read a report or listen to a presentation by a colleague. They subtly point out failings at the first opportunity. They’re trying to tell you that they alone are smart enough to get the job done and that they’re getting no help from their dumb co-workers.

The blockers set up smoke screens and use their positions to hide your view of what others really do. They might run a smart team, but when talking to you about the team’s progress they might claim to be doing all the work. When pressed, they’ll insist they’re not getting any help or good ideas from anyone. Behind closed doors, however, they’re stifling team members and shutting them down in fear that you may find their teammates sharper than they are.

The gatekeepers pretend to possess knowledge that’s denied to others. They’ve positioned themselves as resident experts on a variety of topics, refusing to share their insights with others. When others ask a simple question, a gatekeeper responds, “You just don’t understand.”

While you can confront covert critics directly, you may get denial or disbelief. Here are alternate approaches:

Spend time alone with each employee. Reserve time every few weeks to meet with each person in your unit, in small groups or preferably alone. Solicit their opinions and suggestions. This way, you can make up your own mind without letting a work critic taint your views of others.

Assign individual projects. Let each staffer “run with the ball” on a project that you oversee. By removing the filtering effects of potential critics, you’ll maintain a better sense of each person’s abilities.

Listen for subtle commentary. Take note when an employee volunteers opinions about co-workers. Consider what topic was being discussed and what triggered the individual to interject the criticism. This can provide clues as to the person’s own insecurities.

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