One movie scene made a lasting impression on me. In “A few good men” Jack Nicholson screams, provoked by Tom Cruise in court, “You want the truth?!? YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!”
I know someone whose colleagues, family members and friends say: “Some things we just don’t say to her, because she can’t handle the truth.” When someone dares to give any kind of criticism, she gets really mad, ignores that person fully for days or weeks, and ultimately bans them from her life, bad-mouthing them to others. Effectively it has taught people close to her not to give any kind of personal feedback, or bring up any other version of the truth than hers. While the list of alienated co-workers, family members and friends is growing, she’s become disappointed and bitter because people are not honest with her. She feels betrayed when they say things behind her back and not to her face.
Over the years I’ve met several people like that, who ‘can’t handle the truth’ when it comes to any form of criticism. Even constructive feedback given in the most empathic, subtle, warm and caring manner, bounces off their shell. Of course nobody likes being criticized. However, most of us realize we need to incorporate feedback, to see what we can improve next time. Some people won’t accept criticism at first, but after brooding about it for a few days they work on it after all. But once in a while you’ll encounter someone who just can’t handle the truth about themselves. They display several (or all) of the following behaviors:
- When something goes wrong, they will say it is somebody else’s fault. Even if they obviously were the person making the mistake, they twist it into being a result from another person’s action. For example: they get irritated in traffic with a slow car, race to overtake it, and hit a pedestrian. They don’t blame themselves: if the driver in front of them hadn’t been so slow, it wouldn’t have happened.
- They talk condescendingly about successful colleagues. They say: ‘They were just lucky, because they’re really not that good.’ Or ‘They must have achieved it in an unethical way, because just on their own they would never have gotten that far.’
- They don’t reflect critically on their own behavior, and therefore don’t make changes to improve. In their mind it’s not necessary, because if something doesn’t work out the way they wanted it, it was either the other person’s fault, or it was just an unhappy coincidence.
- To be able to stick to their ‘there’s nothing wrong with me’ attitude, they have to lie, or distort the truth. When confronted with objective information which shows they are not perfect, they either deny it, make up an explanation, or just make up their own version of the truth. For example, when they don’t get a promotion, they say it was offered but they declined. They might also claim they got a bonus or an excellent appraisal (when they didn’t), to create a successful impression.
- They do not only ignore or ban people who criticize them, they actively undermine the credibility of people saying things they don’t like, to curb the impact of that person on others.
People with these behaviors have a strong self-serving bias, whereby people consistently subscribe their successes to their own skills, behavior and personality, and their failures to circumstances (or others). The bias is common, most people have it to a certain extent. Research has shown that this effect increases when someone’s self-image is threatened. So, when someone has an extreme self-serving bias, probably he or she is very insecure. This might not be so obvious to others, as their behavior often comes across as arrogant or self-assured. They are not: people with genuine self-confidence don’t need to blame or attack others to feel good about themselves.
Although it is difficult to manage people who can’t handle the truth about themselves, there are a few things you can try:
- The best way is to identify what they’re insecure about, and address that. Have a good, empathic conversation about their insecurities, and help them build up their self-confidence. Make sure you tell them what’s going well (don’t overdo it, just be realistic). If it doesn’t work, suggest professional help.
- Be consistent, factual and specific in your feedback. They will use any unclarity in feedback to dismiss it.
- Identify whether certain situations, or a certain role, increases their negative behavior. These situations probably feel threatening to their self-image. See if you can help them through these situations, or change the circumstances.
- Get closer to that person, and let them get to know you. The self-serving bias decreases towards people they are close with. It might become easier to have open conversations with them, after establishing more trust.
Make sure you are also attentive to the other people in the team who suffer from a colleague displaying this behavior. They can create a divisive and hostile atmosphere in the team, causing you bigger problems. Don’t let one person affect the whole team negatively. Focus on the other team members, to ensure they can function well.
If nothing works, it is better to let this person go. When people never accept well-meant constructive feedback, and even blame or sabotage others, you’re better off without them.