Don’t let your Outer Critic get out of Control

Four expert ways for leaders to ditch their Outer Critic and inspire people instead

I’ve often written here about our Inner Critics or Gremlins. These are the unconscious thought processes that act to keep us safe by sabotaging our attempts to change or to do something challenging or outside of our comfort zones.

Instead of keeping us safe, all this process really does is to maintain the status quo. And when things then change around us, as they inevitably do, instead of being ‘safe’, we’re left unprepared and disadvantaged. The very things our Inner Critics are fearful of tend to happen because of, not in spite of this process!

That’s why getting clear about and learning to live with the Inner Critic process is such an important part of leadership and personal growth.

But if you’re a leader, or anyone who really should be inspiring and developing the people around them, there’s another insidious aspect to this process. That’s when our Inner Critic is allowed to spill over and become our Outer Critic too.

I’m talking here about all the times when we’ve given voice to those small or large criticisms of the people around us. All the times we’ve said out loud (or just to ourselves), things like:

  • “Why does he have to do it that way, every time!”
  • “She’s just not good enough”
  • “She’s too incompetent/stupid/aggressive etc”
  • “If only he wouldn’t be so clueless/clumsy/timid/etc”
  • “Can’t she be more thoughtful/prepared/polished/etc?”
  • “He just doesn’t know how to work as part of a team/work independently/work hard enough/etc!”
  • “Why can’t she be clearer about what she wants/say what she means/etc?”

I’m sure there are many more examples.

Like the Inner Critic, the Outer Critic has a similarly important function. It’s intended to keep us from harm or to avoid a loss of some kind.

That’s why the times when we’re critical of others are usually when something that’s important to us is threatened by a shortcoming on their part. When their words or actions might lead to the loss of an opportunity or to some kind of ‘damage’ to a valued outcome, person or resource.


The great paradox of the Outer Critic is that just speaking our criticisms of others actually rarely even makes us feel better. And even less rarely does just speaking a criticism by itself actually make any difference to what’s happening.


I think our Outer Critic is a way of expressing our own fears, but without having to take any action that might put us out of our comfort zones. As my gran might have said: It’s all mouth, and no trousers.

One of the turning points in my own leadership journey was the realisation that you simply can’t complain people into changing. If you want something different from people, without having to do so every time, criticising just does not work.

So what should you do instead of criticising? Or if you’ve somehow go to a place where you realise you’re moaning, complaining about and criticising a LOT of people and things, how do you break out of that cycle?

In my experience, there are four important strategies for dealing with your over-active Outer Critic. All of these are crucial things for leaders to be doing anyway, so it’s no surprise that when you are doing these, it’s almost as if there’s no room, or maybe no need, for the Outer Critic to make itself known. Here they are, in descending order of positive impact:

1. Make sure you’re actively pursuing something positive that’s really important to you.
I can’t emphasise this one enough. Think back to the last time you were around someone on a mission. They might have told you about what was wrong with things, because ‘fixing’ something is an important part of some people’s missions, but I bet they won’t have moaned, complained or criticised. And when you’ve got something important to set your sights on, neither will you. There just isn’t time ☺

2. Either be prepared to get down in the arena and sort it out yourself, or walk on by.
There’s a great passage from a speech in 1910 by former US President Theodore Roosevelt, which is often referred to as “The Man in the Arena”. I’ve put the relevant extract in the picture at the top of this article, which you can download and save for yourself by clicking and then right-clicking. The message is essentially this: be the one taking action, or move on.

3. “Be the Change you Want to See”
This quote is often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi: “Be the change you want to see”. It’s a really resourceful way of dealing with your Outer Critic. There are times for all of us when we genuinely don’t have the means, power or resources to step-in and deal with a particular issue, in a particular place and time. For those occasions when you can’t take action on that specific issue, but are convinced there’s a better way of doing things, then instead of moaning, complaining or criticizing, show people how it could be done, in the areas where you do have choice and control. Don’t criticize what is, inspire what could be.

4. Learn to make specific requests.
One of my very early coaching instructors, the late Laura Whitworth, gave me this gem of advice: “A complaint is just an unvoiced request”. This is a fantastic discipline to practise if you find that your Outer Critic has made an unwelcome appearance.
Take your criticism and search out the request that’s buried away inside it.
For example, instead of saying to your companion in a restaurant: “I hate how they’ve given us a table in the draft by the door”, call over your waiter and ask to be moved.
I can tell you from personal experience, that this ‘make a specific request’ approach sometimes even works with your teenaged children!


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