The dynamics of faultfinders are interesting in so far as they are not what you might expect. People trying to deal with these players are apt to see them as confident people who have high standards and a low tolerance for anything less than perfection. The real issue is that they cannot separate the important from the unimportant, the essential from the unessential. They can recognize an exact duplicate of something, know when people are following the rules or tell when things are not right. What they cannot recognize is a reasonable example of something. They cannot tell when someone does a job well enough for the purpose. They cannot see that behavior sometimes only varies in style or as a function of personality. They need an exact match or they see no match at all.
The trick is to look at the faultfinder’s behavior or performance. If you see a flaw or problem in the player, he also sees it and amplifies it many times. The player has little faith in himself, has little tolerance for personal shortcomings, and is self-blaming about things that were unavoidable. Faultfinders have a standard to which they compare themselves, and they fall short.
The first step in managing these players is to see that they are not doing anything to others they do not do to themselves. That helps you take their behavior less personally. They are only pointing out a problem or difficulty. The variance from their standard bothers them more than any person in particular, as hard as this may be to see at the time.
Next, faultfinders not only expect others to foul up but also fear they will do so. They are not accepting of others but are not accepting of themselves either. If you watch them, you will see that they treat themselves as critically as they treat others.
This insight leads to the best technique to use with these players. As with anyone who drives you up the wall, do not react, do not come to the bait. The bait is the urge to react negatively, to tell them off, to refuse to work with them, or to resign to the inevitable while you are boiling inside. Instead, make the changes that are appropriate and reasonable. Remember that they are sometimes right and not just faultfinding. The rest of the time, do only what needs to be done, as well as it needs to be done.
Here is the real trick. Without overdoing it, find honest opportunities to say supportive things to these players. Point out things they have done especially well. Comment on it when one of their skills or abilities makes things easier or helps things turn out successfully. Over time, relating to them in these positive ways will modify the way they treat you. It will have little affect on their behavior with other people. The technique only tends to benefit the one who uses it.
As a closing thought, be alert to a special context in which faultfinders do some of their most destructive work. The behavior occurs in casual conversations in hallways, before and after meetings, and when people are not expecting anything important.
The faultfinder makes a comment to you about someone who is not present. The comment just slips into the conversation in a low-key way, appearing to be innocuous.
“I wonder how Linda is doing with that project. She is having more trouble than a kid learning to ride a bicycle. I wish I had time to help her, but you know how it goes.”
This player is a sensitive person who only wishes he could do more for Linda and perhaps for the company. Here is a real team player.
As an experienced counter player, you see the real game, though. The Faultfinder is running a complex gambit on you. Here are the elements:
Linda is not doing very well
Her project is as commonplace as riding a bicycle
The player could do Linda’s project quickly and well, if he had the time
You say something like, “Linda has her hands full. That project is more complex than it seems at a glance. You can be glad you do not have time to get involved.”
Your counter play puts the faultfinder on notice. You are not going to play the game at Linda’s expense. This is a good thing for your colleagues to know. Further, your counter play shows, in a positive way, the importance of a thorough understanding of what is and is not happening before passing judgment. Finally, you are able to model these positive techniques without falling into the trap of criticizing anyone. When dealing with faultfinders, take care to avoid dealing with the problem by doing a little faultfinding of your own.