If you’re a leader you know what I mean. It can get pretty darn rough out there. People talk about us. They disagree with our decisions. We walk into the staff lounge and the sudden silence gives us a chill. Some of the barbed comments find their way back to us when a “helpful” employee just wants us to know what the masses are thinking.
What’s a leader to do with all of this criticism?
When I was a novice principal I received a hateful letter from an anonymous source. Reading it left me shaken and uncertain. Did this mean I wasn’t doing a good job? Did I need to change the way I was leading? I considered the message as objectively as possible before discarding it, not wanting the harsh words to take hold of me. This was about 15 years ago and I still recall how criticism chipped away at my growing confidence.
In this age of electronic media, criticism comes in many forms and quickly multiplies with the click of a mouse. There are endless opportunities for the dissatisfied to namelessly vent. The more public our position, the more feathers we ruffle.
As my leadership skills grew I gained comfort with confrontation and even encouraged it. I was more willing to let direct feedback get under my skin than the anonymous kind. But, whether the source is known or unknown it takes practice to learn to deal with disagreement. When we can listen without defensiveness and open the door to feedback we foster healthy and direct communication.
Leaders need to toughen up.
In my early leadership days a mentor suggested I toughen up a bit. I wasn’t sure what this even meant or how to develop a thick skin. But I did know that I couldn’t lead with confidence—or get a good night’s sleep—while feeling burdened by the weight of criticism. I needed to find a way to handle the hurtful attacks. Imagining an elephant helped.
Picture an elephant’s trunk spraying water down its back, the cascading droplets just skimming the elephant’s hide. I needed that kind of thicker skin. But, developing a thick skin, where hurts don’t penetrate, doesn’t come as naturally to leaders as it does to elephants. It takes practice, patience, and a few attitudinal shifts.
Here are five tips for developing a thick skin.
- Don’t take it personally. Remember that those who oppose us or have differing views have their own context. Their disagreement is best understood when we know what they value, fear, and want. This helps us to remember that it’s not always about us.
- Rise above criticism. Resist digging, to find out more, or testing the validity of criticism by venting to others in the workplace. Take the leadership high road.
- Be open to change. Often there is a gem of truth in criticism. Be as objective as possible and mine for that truth and be willing to change as a result of knowing it.
- Share with one trusted person. When we have even one trusted “go to” person, who will hold our pain without judgment, we are reminded that we’re not alone. We receive the gift of affirmation that we’re on the right path and the strength to continue.
- Develop a stronger heart. When we open our heart to our critics we have compassion for the pain they are experiencing and the life they are leading. As the quote below says: Some people say you need to develop a thicker skin to deal with mean people. I think it makes more sense to develop a stronger heart.
Leaders who help their organizations grow will always have haters. People are so resistant to change that they will stoop to gossip and nastiness to stop it. When using these five tips leaders can grow a thicker skin. With practice and time this will allow hurts and insults to roll off like water down an elephant’s hide.
I’d say that developing a thick skin is an essential part of a leader’s growth, since we can’t put positive energy into leading when we’re putting negative energy into worrying about what others think. What would you say?
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