I'm currently working in a team where one of the members doesn't accept critique. Being from a high-rated school and considering himself an elite, this person doesn't like to be contradicted nor criticized, including when he talks on subjects which are not his domain of expertise.

Since I've always been working with people who easily accept and welcome critique, considering it as an opportunity to improve within a team, I have a hard time to disguise and dissimulate my feedback when it's negative. If I notice that something is wrong, by habit, I tell straightforward that this is wrong and why, and I'm unable to do it differently, in a way politicians do.

Logically, my bad manners are vexing to this person, creating anger and conflict which are currently affecting only us, but sooner or later will be an issue for the whole team.

Actually, I think about four alternatives:

  • I can avoid criticizing anything coming from this person, while still criticizing other people who accept being criticized. The good point is that it will avoid anger and conflict, the disadvantage being the fact that since I would still criticize other people, the team will believe that I tacitly agree with everything said by this touchy person, even when I'm not.

  • I can also avoid criticizing anyone in the team. The good point is that it would avoid anger while not having the drawback of the first alternative. The disadvantage, still, is that my opinion wouldn't count any longer and I wouldn't be visible inside a team, or be perceived as "a guy who agrees with everything and doesn't have his own opinion".

  • Finally, I can continue telling my opinion in the only straightforward way I know, given that it's disturbing to be yelling at by phone and would, soon or later, cause big trouble either to me alone or to the whole team.

  • Optionally, I can also tell during the meetings in front of everyone things like: "Well, I totally disagree, but I don't want to anger <the name of the touchy person>, so I keep silence on this point", given that it would clearly be a provocation and probably would bring more harm than good.

Discussing the issue all together within a team is not an alternative, given the current relations. "Talking to the boss" is not possible neither, since there is no boss (we're a start-up where every one is considered having the same hierarchical status).

I'm pretty sure other people with more experience than mine had the same issue and dealt with it.

What should I do until I'm able to quit the team? Any suggestions?

  • 7
    I don't have a full answer, but the first thought that came into my head on reading your title was "don't critique, teach". So you might say "oh hey I discovered xyz and thought I'd share it with you" or "I've recently started to do abc because I find [insert constructive reasoning here]". Some people don't accept criticism well, but I find most people are quite willing to learn and improve themselves
    – Rachel
    Commented Nov 21, 2012 at 21:15
  • Why isn't it an option to discuss with other team members to see what others think of the touchy person?
    – JB King
    Commented Nov 21, 2012 at 21:45
  • 5
    First think I notice is that you say you criticize this person. However I assume you mean that you are finding flaws with their work. If you are personalizing the problems with the work to problems with the person then that would rub me the wrong way as well. Commented Nov 21, 2012 at 22:10
  • 7
    unable to do it differently hm here's the fifth alternative to add to your list of four: learn how to criticize differently. I did that some time ago; learning was long and painful, but it was really worth it
    – gnat
    Commented Nov 22, 2012 at 7:04
  • 2
    "The good point is that it will avoid anger and conflict". Avoiding anger and conflict is not necessarily healthy. If you want your startup to be successful, especially with a non-hierarchical management structure, the entire team needs to learn to deal with conflict in health ways. mindtools.com/pages/article/newLDR_81.htm
    – Jaydee
    Commented Nov 22, 2012 at 14:46

7 Answers 7


Criticism can be very easily taken the wrong way by people because it is a negative action against them and/or their work.

Some people understand that criticism is meant to be constructive and help improve them, but other people haven't come to this realization yet.

There are a few things I can think of to help someone who doesn't accept criticism very well.

  1. The first is to try and teach instead of criticize. Instead of trying to tell someone that what they are doing/saying is wrong, teach them the correct way of doing it.

    This can easily be done in a very casual manner such as "oh hey I discovered xyz and thought I'd share it with you" or "I've recently started to do abc because I find [insert constructive reasoning here]" or "to make this easier to maintain, try and do xxxx"

    Most people are always looking for ways to improve themselves, and learning is usually seen as a great way to improve yourself.

    If you're looking to critique something more abstract such as an idea, I often find it better to ask questions that lead to them discovering why it's a bad idea in the first place as opposed to flat out stating it's a bad idea and trying to get them to understand why.

    For example, if someone is pushing for a javascript solution and you disagree because not everyone has javascript enabled, then instead of saying something like "This is a bad idea because not everyone has javascript enabled" you can say "What do we do about people who have javascript disabled?"

    The first immediately puts them on defensive and they'll want to start disagreeing that its a bad idea without actually listening to your reasons, while the second often leads to them taking a step back from their idea and evaluating it on their own

  2. The second suggestion would be to offer feedback instead of criticism. Criticism is something negative about them or their work. Feedback is your opinion. The key difference here is how you phrase what you say.

    Consider the two phrases "Your idea is bad because..." and "I think your idea is bad because...". There is a subtle but important difference between the two. The first is making a statement against the other person's idea which immediately puts them on the defensive, while the second is a statement about you about how you view the other person's idea.

    Whenever possible, try and phrase your critique in such a way that it is clear this is your opinion, such as adding "I think..." or "In my opinion..." to the beginning of whatever you want to say.

  3. And last of all, I find people are often more accepting of criticism from you if you start with something positive first.

    So instead of immediately launching into why it's a bad idea, start with something like "Well I like part A of the idea because of abc, however I'm not sure part B is such a good idea because of xyz" or "I like what you did here because of abc, however I think this section over here could be improved to do xyz".

You don't have to become a politician to deliver criticism without offending someone. You just need a slightly different approach :)


  • Teach instead of criticize
  • Offer feedback instead of criticism. This is usually done by prefixing your criticism with "I think..." or "In my opinion..."
  • Begin with something positive, such as praise for what they've done right
  • 1
    I personally like to think that "feedback" is just a synonym for "criticism", since there is "positive criticism" and "negative criticism".
    – Xeo
    Commented Nov 22, 2012 at 2:17
  • 7
    @Xeo Critique aims to be objective and true in an absolute sense. Feedback is subjective and true only from the perspective of the giver. Big difference. For example, you can say that a critique is "unfair", but you can't really say that feedback is unfair. You can say it's bad, indicating that the quality of the feedback-message was lacking, but it will always be fair, in the subjective sense of the giver. Likewise, you can choose to ignore feedback on the ground that from your perspective, it's wrong. Critique feigns to be objective truth, so it becomes imperative that you heed it.
    – pap
    Commented Nov 22, 2012 at 11:54

I've come back and re-read this question several times in hopes of getting past my gut reaction on the first read. Commenting or replying based on emotion is a risky business so I always try to take a step back before opening my big mouth.

The emotional response is over and done with, but I still have the same reaction in spite of ample time to digest and re-read your question.

I don't know you at all and it's nearly impossible to determine a person's real character from a post. So please take what I'm about to say at face value and not as a direct criticism of you. I'm only offering my reaction; which may or may not be your co-workers reaction as well.

Being from a high-rated school and considering himself an elite, this person doesn't like to be contradicted nor criticized, including when he talks on subjects which are not his domain of expertise.

Your opening statement screams out to me that you have an issue with this individual based on his education and background. That it's very possible that this individuals reaction to your criticism may be based, in part, on your own bias. Even if not intended it is very easy for us to inject our own bias or dislike of someone into an otherwise perfectly normal and accepted conversation, observation, or off the cuff comment.

You don't mention in your question how he reacts to comments or critique from others. Only your own bad manners. Take the time to have a hard look at how your co-worker responds to others as well as your own behavior and possible bias.

Update and Response

Speaking as a IT manager/director with over 20 years of experience managing and directing international and multicultural teams and even taking in to account cultural differences; I have to say that your response knocked me out of my chair.

The first thing that came to mind is that you sound exactly like my younger brothers and sisters did when they were around five. "It's his fault!" or "He did it!".

In your rush to defend yourself and point out that it's entirely the other persons fault you totally ignored my suggestions to step back and take a look at the problem again with an open mind. As a manager this tells me without a doubt that you've made up your mind that you have no responsibility for this problem at all; that it's entirely the other persons fault.

You are, whether you realize it or not, confirming my earlier statement that you have a biased outlook on the problem. You are refusing to even consider that you may be at least partially at fault here.

Perhaps the two of your are more alike than you realize. His arrogance may be a result of his highbrow school while your is the result of your refusal to allow for the possibility that you may be partially to blame.

As a manager I'd pull you both in my office and tell you to grow up and work it out. Both of your attitudes and behavior are affecting the team and will have a negative impact.

None of the suggestions or avenues of approach you state in your question resolve the underlying issue. They only avoid it and try to sweep it under the rug; might alleviate the symptoms but will never cure the disease.

  • 1
    As a side note, it's not me who have an issue with this individual based on his education, but rather this person who uses the "I'm from <high-rated school>" as an argument (for example: "I'm from <high-rated business school>, so I know how to write well", in response to me highlighting a few spelling mistakes and suggesting to proof read the document he wrote). I think this makes my question slightly clearer. Commented Nov 22, 2012 at 13:25
  • 1
    @MainMa Thanks for clarifying. It is galling when somebody asks you to take something on faith just because of past glories. In teamwork, you have to be able to trust your team and that trust can only be earned by doing a good job. What someone else did elsewhere counts for very little if the project fails.
    – Robbie Dee
    Commented Nov 22, 2012 at 14:51
  • 1
    @Stephen A different spin might be that the gentleman in question looks down on MainMa for some reason and so takes umbrage to any criticism from someone he deems to be inferior...
    – Robbie Dee
    Commented Nov 22, 2012 at 14:58
  • @RobbieDee you are of course correct; I was only offering a different prespective. But the bottom line is that it takes two to tango.
    – Steve
    Commented Nov 22, 2012 at 19:09
  • 1
    @MainMa Please see the updates/comments within the question.
    – Steve
    Commented Nov 22, 2012 at 19:10

What I take from this is you are facing a classic communication style problem, where your normal approach of head-on straight talking isn't working, and you are facing someone who seems to arrogantly present their own viewpoint and not listen to yours.

This is more common that you might think, especially in a relatively inexperienced team under some stress. (I'm taking that from the fact you are in a start-up, and that the school someone went to seems to be relevant - 20 years into your career, this will make less of a difference!)

Typically we can all communicate in a number of ways when we are on the top of our game, but we have a natural, dominant style we fall back on the most, especially when stressed, angry or excited.

In these cases we can often end up using language that provokes a defensive response from the recipient. This might be because we are being aggressive (or passive/aggressive), or it could be because the person is chooses to interpret what we say as an attack; either way this usually leads to a defensive response, counter attack and continued escalation.

There is a lot you can do to avoid this kind of "downward communication spiral" - its well worth reading around personality styles - check out the DOPE (Dove, Owl, Peacock, Eagle) personality model as a start, and then maybe look at MBTI or the Process Communication Model - but this really needs the whole team buy-in. PCM in particular is very effective.

In the short term, there are some simple but effective techniques you can employ to adapt your style to one that will be seen as less confrontational, while still getting your point across :

  • start by acknowledging what the other person as part of your response, to show you have heard them and understood

  • employ the "however" technique mid-sentence to invert the issue

  • use "I" (I think, I feel) not "you" (You must, you always, you can...)

  • invite their feedback on your counter ideas

So - rather than :

"Well, I totally disagree, but I don't want to anger , so I keep silence on this point"

you get -

"Ah - so what you are suggesting is XXXX and YYYY. Interesting - however in my experience with this type of thing I found ZZZZ and AAAA. What do you think?"

It will feel false at first, but this approach of reflecting the ideas back, and then commenting from your perspective and inviting a discussion is highly effective. Even when you know you are being "techniqued" in this way, it is still effective.

I had this issue with my development team, but once I had coached them away from "World War I tactics" (either dig in and wait, or head on charge, guns blazing) things improved hugely.


Due to this being a startup, and everyone being on the same level on the playing field, you may want to see how the other team members feel about his expertise. Based on the comments made it seems as though you have a problem with this individual and the advice he gives, but no mention of this being a disruption to any others in the office.

Secondly, are you in the role in which you "should" be critiquing him? It may just be that you may be stepping on toes.

It's a fair assumption to make that when things like this happen in the office, that the best way to go about solving them is to put yourself in the other's shoes. The above two statements do that.

I had one particular colleague at my previous company who acted pretty much this exact same way. It took multiple teams sitting him down in a meeting and explaining to him that, while he was quite knowledgeable and we respected him for his accolades, that he wasn't as Subject Matter Expert in everything and his attitude towards new ideas or ideas that weren't his own was leading to a high tension environment. We basically explained to him that no one liked talking to him and we only did so because he was a coworker.

After that he began to work on his behavior, mostly due to peer-pressure (no one likes a whole group of people disliking them). In the end, a year or so after, he's a genuinely nice guy. He still has reserves about meeting new people and still questions everything, but in a much more professional demeanor.

So, I'd find out a couple of things:

  • Does he bother the other employees like he bothers you?
  • Should he be getting criticized by you in the first place?
  • Would sitting him down as a group and explaining to him that his behavior could lead to drastic problems in the future unless it's changed? (Especially for a startup).

It's also nice to mention that due to it being a startup, you could wager this as being part of your confrontation for having him recognize the criticism. Startups are risky as it is, but it takes a certain level of input and creativity to truly flourish into a blossoming company. Explain to him that everyone's input should be encouraged and options weighed.


I'd seriously recommend you read Dale Carnegie's seminal work: How to win friends and influence people.

If you don't want to read this or just want the rub:

a) People do not like being criticized

b) People like being praised

If you construct your critique taking these 2 points into mind, you should get on a lot better.

I'm also concerned that you dub your question: critique.

The end game in any business is surely to improve the business processes for the benefit of everyone.

In business, a very large part of what you're trying to say, isn't so much the content per se - more how you say it.

Very best of luck!


This is my pan-cultural solution since I'm guessing this isn't happening in Chicago and I suspect there are some social dynamics that are different than what I'm used to:

There is a problem to be solved. You believe it should be solved one way. Some other equal-ranking programmer believes it should be solved another way. Make a compelling argument for how you want it solved and let him make his argument. Let the other devs make the decision which approach is better since the two of you can't seem to actually compromise or agree on anything. If there's no boss, the team decides. That's not you against him. That's you or him convincing the team.

But all the stuff about the way you handle things and the way he's an elitist snob... Maybe you're right, but who cares about that? Stay focused on the problem, not the guy with the dumb idea about how to solve it or not solve it. And make sure you put the mirror on yourself sometimes. It sounds like you're doing a lot of criticizing of equals but make no mention of how well you respond to it when it comes from other team members. Was it not worth mentioning? Do they not criticize ever? Or are you perfect?

  • Some very good points here...
    – Robbie Dee
    Commented Nov 22, 2012 at 9:21
  • 1
    Yes I suspect there are "Caste" issues in play here
    – Neuro
    Commented Nov 22, 2012 at 14:22

This is an awful circumstance. Not being receptive to criticism is the ultimate destroyer of any relationship, not just work/business. Considering oneself exempt from receiving constructive feedback is simply not feasible and realistic in any type of work environment. It's like saying 'I am god'.

In the course of remodelling my house, which took several years as I did in on my own with only occasional help of a low skilled laborer, I had a very good relationship with that laborer, not to call him a contractor because he was doing odd work that required little skill. Since, over the years, he also had other projects with other clients, I trusted that he acquired skills in finishing drywall and, when I reached that stage in the renovation, I decided to give him an opportunity to do it under less supervision, essentially being the defacto contractor for that project stage.

He did mostly immaculate work except for one irregular corner which came out sloppy but could very easily be fixed. When I submitted that feedback to him and requested that he redo it properly, he got offended and walked out from the job and I never heard from him again. Personally, I am not the kind to give in in that kind of situation because I won't tolerate or condone of that kind of attitude. So he essentially fired himself over his stupid, overly sensitive and immature pride.

Look, if I, as a software developer were to get offended every time a QA enters a bug each scrum sprint, I would render myself unusable.

If I were you, I would start ignoring this person and wait until his intolerably dismissive attitude towards criticism renders him useless in the team environment and demand that it either change or else... Welcoming feedback and constructively responding to it is critical in the course of any continuously improving effort, which is basically any job that's not in a dead end.

  • 2
    -1: Ignoring the co-worker is rude as well as unprofessional and more likely to make things worse than improve them. Furthermore, refusing to work with someone in your work group might lead to dismissal.
    – GreenMatt
    Commented Nov 23, 2012 at 18:20

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