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Don't take it personally - Growing a thicker skin at work

April 29, 2016


I admire well intentioned politicians and minor sports referees. Both make unpopular decisions that often leave someone feeling hard done by who may then hurl criticism whether its warranted or not. Attracting candidates for public office arguably suffers as a result. And every year we hear of minor sports referees, barely older than the participants who drop out of officiating for the insults heaved their way by parents and foul mouthed fans from the stands. Two roles that clearly require a thick skin in order to be effective and thrive.


In the workplace we are often told to “not take it personally” that it is “just business” yet many people do take criticism and rejection personally and most jobs come with healthy doses of both. They are not always delivered with honourable intent or finesse.

Supervisors and managers are taught to make constructive criticism about the issue or the problem at hand and not about the person but like many management competencies it takes training, experience and capability to deliver feedback professionally. And akin to politicians and referees, the work of leaders comes with the requirement to make unpopular decisionsthat disappoint, or in the case of the workplace push through comfort zones and bring people face to face with their insecurities and weaknesses.


Employees differ greatly in their capacity to get over hurt feelings. Workplaces are emotional places to varying degrees and the way people communicate, interact and are managed gives rise to the full spectrum of human emotion. Bosses and coworkers cover the gamut from harsh and tactless to very aware and emotionally intelligent and everything in between. It takes maturity and professionalism to respond appropriately to criticism rather than react emotionally and disproportionately and we all bring different tolerances for having our feelings bruised on the job.


Employers do well when they promote open hearted, compassionate people into roles of authority who can balance and champion the unwavering requirement for high standards, efficiency and productivity with the ability to exercise “professional intimacy” as stated by the late Peter Frost in the Ivey Business Journal. He wrote of those who can recognize and manage their own emotions as well as be aware of the emotional state of others as they push for progress and successful outcomes. In short he lauded the ability to be emotionally intelligent while effectively driving for results.


Developing a thicker skin is a job requirement and advice on the topic abounds. From seeking the nugget or truth and the learning opportunity that comes in poorly delivered feedback, to reminding ourselves that we typically recover well over time from both fair and unfair criticism to lightening up and not taking ourselves so seriously.

Much is written about focusing soberly on the facts and not the (sometimes dramatic) stories we tell ourselves and the potentially overblown assumptions and generalisations we then make. Ellen Hendriksen PhD, the Savvy Psychologist reminds her blog readers that “It’s not what they say, it’s what you hear” that matters.


Developing a thicker skin has a lot to do with how we interpret and reframe as opposed to immediately taking things at face value. It’s about objectively considering the information and deciding for yourself on the merits acknowledging that critics may be right. On the other hand, you may simply be ahead of the curve and they may be wrong and the unwarranted criticism may speak much more about them, their intentions and frustrations than it does about you or your actions. Recognizing our emotional triggers, learning to spot our own defensiveness when it surfaces and zooming out when needed are requisite job skills. Considering criticism thoughtfully and deciding whether to park it and move on or accept it and adjust willingly is what those who have developed the capacity to brush things aside and carry on do so well.


Overdoing a thick skin and toughening up to the point of callousness and being closed to others and our need for learning and growth is taking the advice way too far.

For the record, I was minor hockey referee as a kid and always heeded a wise seasoned volunteer ref I worked with. He reminded me to keep my eyes on the ice not in the stands and listen hard for the sounds of the game and my positive inner voice in the moment rather than the voices in the stands.

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