The problem of the overly critical... do you know what ails you?


The problem of the overly critical... do you know what ails you?There are some people out there who just love to criticise, so much so that they can't come up with a single positive statement, they can only be negative. But what is really going on there, do they just wear darker glasses or is there something more telling here... what does hyper critique say about you?

In that statement it's really the 'hyper' that matters.

We can all be critical, and should be in many strategic decisions where risk management is going to make a big difference to success or how far you fall. However, 'hyper' critical is different, those who harp on about issues have something to hide.

The truth is being hyper about anything is exhausting, for everyone.

So if you, or someone you know is hyper critical about something... it's a good bet they are suffering from the same thing they are railing against.

Human beings have a problem when what they DO doesn't match their thoughts about themselves. If we believe we would never steal, but are skimming 'just a bit' to cover gambling addiction (for instance) because we also 'believe' we can win, we start to feel very bad about that.

Or if you have a colleague who consistently disparages your achievements while talking up their own, because they actually believe they are no good at all.

That's called "cognitive dissonance" and it's genuinely negative for as humans, we don't like it and we'll do pretty much anything to get rid of it.

Of course, if you are so embedded in your gambling addiction you can't give it up, and you can't face giving up your value of 'never steal', there is another option to ease the pain, at least in the short term... you can spot and criticise the same behaviour in others.

This is the same for someone who disparages others' achievements - they are so embedded in their public image of competence they can't give it up, despite really believing that they are crap... to disparage their colleagues is the best way to reduce that horrible pain of dissonance.

Despite the fact that you CAN'T lie to yourself forever,... many people come up with amazing ways to keep up the act.

In the case of gambling you might become an anti-gambling activist, so you can tell off others for doing it and supporting it. Or you might become hyper conscious of how other people steal from organsations (i.e. the odd pen that you accidentally take home!). In the case of the disparager, you are highly likely to try to become the boss so you can disparage people to your heart's content!

The hyper critical literally "protest too much".

It's important to remember that this is really a pre-occupation, an obsession designed by the person to remove their own negative feeling about themselves, so it's not particularly rational, nor is it actually about you.

Often it surfaces in an obsession over details, when they are not materially important, e.g. "you can only claim a lunch if you actually discussed business while you ate, if you opened up with a discussion of the weather you can't claim the starter"

It's noticeably pedantic.

The disparager won't actually attack your work for instance, they will focus on small parts of your achievements i.e. "oh yes you got a great job, pity about the company"

Often we excuse this as high attention to detail or we admire it as a kind of 'realism', but the combination of hyper + detail + obsessive should certainly raise red flags as indicating personal problems.

Think about it, who is hyper critical in your social circle... what are they really telling you? It's essentially a cry for help. The problem of the overly critical... do you know what ails you?

... and what about you as the boss, are you guilty too? Do you know what ails you?

Dr Louise Metcalf

Associate Lecturer at

Internationally published leadership expert. One of the top 100 Sustainability Leaders in the World (ABC Carbon, 2011, 2012). BA (Hons in Psych), Masters of Applied Psychology Organisational, MBA, PhD, Member APS College of Organisational Psychologist, membership of Academy of Management. Louise has decades of experience in the field of organisational psychology and general psychology. She is a highly respected leadership and change management consultant in Australia

Comments (2)
Phil Khor

Phil Khor, Founder at

Wow, what a great inside look into why people around us are overly critical. It's a topic often close to home for me. I find negativity seriously energy sapping, esp in teams, in business, in entrepreneurial ventures, even in relationships. I'm all for critical thinking and being realistic, but when one tips the balance towards being overly critical all the time, it's debilitating. As bosses, we are often our own worst enemies when we're overly critical, and it shows. In fact, I think the impact is far worse in smaller teams. So getting a grip on the science of cognitive dissonance is key to helping others and becoming better leaders. Thanks for sharing Louise.

Dr Louise Metcalf

Dr Louise Metcalf, Associate Lecturer at

Thanks Phil, I couldn't agree more!