Most of the time, you will see leadership advice admonishing younger managers to be thick skinned. Ditto for advice to new authors, songwriters or anyone in the public arena. The mantra never changes: Have a thick skin.
Any leader will tell you that you cannot be too sensitive. There are always critics. No matter what your intentions, you will find that some people will respond negatively. That’s just human nature.
But everyone reacts differently to criticism. Believe me, I’ve had my share. Some of it is mean or misguided, so I ignore it. Some of it is hilarious, so I keep it to laugh. And some of it is true and points out a weakness, so I keep it to learn.
Listening to the toughen-up directive always made me wonder. It’s a common mantra, but what do you do with that advice? Is there an emotional gym to strengthen our ability to ignore criticism?
In reflecting on all of this recently, I thought about the skin analogy. I decided to think about it literally. What is skin anyway?
Skin is the largest organ of the human body. It is really an amazing organ, able to do everything from regulate body temperature to protect us from viruses and bacteria. Matched by its role as protector is the mysterious connection to our emotions. We learn to pay attention when the hair stands up on the back of our neck or goose bumps warn us about a hidden danger.
The advice to have a thick skin seems to be all about keeping things out. Someone says, “Don’t let it get under your skin.” And yet the skin doesn’t just keep things out. It is permeable. Wall off one side and you end up with disaster—you either trap in sweat designed to rid your body of poisons, or you don’t synthesize and take in enough Vitamin D for ideal health.
I’ve witnessed leaders who seem to have really thick skin, and what do I notice? They don’t get that close to people.
Maybe there are some benefits to being thin-skinned. Perhaps it shows sensitivity to others. I think it can drive performance.
I think that the real magic is not thin skin or thick skin. It is skin at just the right thickness, skin in balance.
I think most of the times when you are told you are thin-skinned, someone is telling you that you are not reacting well to criticism. So, what is my advice to thin-skinned people on how to react to criticism? “Toughen up! Realize you just can’t please everyone!” How I wish it were that easy.
Here is what I try to do (though I admit I don’t always succeed):
1. Do nothing in public for a period of time. Breathe. Wait. You need to control your emotions. Time and distance will give you perspective. And ignore the person who says, “Don’t take things personally.” If you were wired that way, the person would never have said anything in the first place. What you are aiming for is something we all admire, and that is coolness under pressure.
2. Find someone you trust who will let you vent and keep it confidential. We all need this and those who are thin-skinned treasure people who let them blow off some steam.
3. Don’t let the criticism paralyze you. Don’t get stuck, letting the words play a never-ending repeat cycle in your mind. It is far easier to sit on the sidelines and not compete. Instead, write down exactly what you wanted to say or what you felt like, and then…shred it.
4. Consider the source. Is it from someone you respect? Is it within that person’s special area of expertise? Well-intended criticism always has nuggets of wisdom. Most people I know who are thin-skinned actually thrive on constructive comments. We want to improve. We want to get better.
5. If the criticism is accurate, embrace it. Healthy skin filters out bacteria, and takes in vitamins. Make sure you can discern the difference. Don’t try to always prove it wrong. I’ve found amazing power in saying, “You’re right. I’m struggling with this, and it is outside of my comfort zone. What do you recommend?” If the person cares at all, you may find yourself with some of the best free coaching you could ever ask for.
Konrad Adenauer said, “A thick skin is a gift from God.” I don’t believe that—I believe that God wants skin to be “just right.” I want to both accept criticism and remain sensitive to people.