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Stop Drive-By Critics in Their Tracks

People who offer criticism without also offering a possible solution are not valuable to the discussion. These three steps will help you hold them accountable.
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Have you ever been the victim of a drive-by critic? You know what I am talking about.  Someone says something negative to you. Maybe it is your appearance, your work product, or maybe just some random comment you made. "You know those shoes don't go with that outfit?" Maybe in a meeting it's a simple "That will never work" statement without further annotation. They spout out something negative and move on or just sit there.

Drive-by critics take many forms but they all have one thing in common: they rarely offer solutions.

Well criticism without a solution is about as useful as a screen door on a submarine.

Worse, drive-by criticism can be especially detrimental in the workplace. Drive-by critics stifle healthy discussions by poising problems or limitations without offering a means to overcome the obstacles they themselves have envisioned. An otherwise thought-provoking discussion can be derailed and even ended abruptly by naysayers constantly tearing down ideas without offering positive solutions.

Don't let them get away with it, at any level. Create a culture devoid of drive-by critics by taking the following steps:

What Do You Suggest?  

First and foremost take control of drive-by critics in your life on a personal level. How?  Simple. Never let them get away with it. Never. For instance, if someone says, "Those shoes don't match that belt," smile right at them and as non-sarcastically and non-confrontational as you can say something like, "Thank you for mentioning that. What do you suggest I should wear next time?" Make them back up their drive-by criticism every time with actual positive advice.

In business if someone says, "That's a bad plan. It will never work," turn right to them with that same pleasant demeanor and ask simply, "Fair enough, what's your plan?"

Stick to Your Guns

Once you have implemented Step 1 above, the next step is to simply stick to your guns. Don't let them escape with "I don't know" or a simple "I just know your plan won't work."  Make them back it up. Make them go through the mental gymnastics and articulate their rationale for their statement.

Speaker: "What do you suggest?"
Drive-By Critic: "I don't know, I just know your plan won't work."
Speaker: "Tell us why you think that."

Ultimately you will push them to one of two places: (1) they articulate the basis for their critique and thus the discussion will actually progress to a more full understanding of their position potentially leading to a solution or; (2) they will not back up their statement and they have been put on notice, politely, that their drive-by criticism will no longer be tolerated in a vacuum and that they will need to be prepared to back it up every time.

Create a Positive Culture 

As I have said for so many years, naysayers never build a great business. Well, drive-by critics are the ultimate naysayers. In your business, you must encourage positive discussion and discourage drive-by critics. How? Hold drive-by critics accountable for their negative opinions on a systemic level. Create and encourage a culture of open discussion by never allowing anyone to simply shoot an idea down without offering another idea or, at a minimum, their basis as to why that which they are criticizing will not work.

Always be respectful of their opinions as you are not trying to bully them away from ever speaking. But by asking those simple follow-up questions you will hold them accountable for their thoughts and encourage and keep the discussions moving in a positive direction.

Last updated: Aug 28, 2012

MATTHEW SWYERS | Columnist | Founder, The Trademark Company

Matthew Swyers is the founder of The Trademark Company, a Web-based law firm specializing in protecting the trademark rights of small to medium-size businesses. The company is ranked No. 138 on the 2011 Inc. 500.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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