New Brunswick·World of Work

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

In the workplace we are often told to "not take it personally", yet many people do take criticism and rejection personally and most jobs come with healthy doses of both.

Employees differ greatly in their capacity to get over hurt feelings

Developing a thicker skin has a lot to do with how we interpret and re-frame, as opposed to immediately taking things at face value. (Getty Images/Cultura RF)

I admire well-intentioned politicians and minor-sports referees.

Both make unpopular decisions that often leave people feeling hard done by and ready to hurl criticism whether it is 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 because of insults heaved their way by parents and foul-mouthed fans in the stands. Both roles clearly require a thick skin in order to be effective and thrive.

'Just business'

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, leaders must make unpopular decisions that disappoint, or, in the case of the workplace, push through comfort zones and bring people face-to-face with their insecurities and weaknesses.

Hurt feelings

Employees differ greatly in their capacity to get over hurt feelings. Workplaces are emotional places, to varying degrees, and the way people communicate and interact gives rise to the full spectrum of human emotion. Bosses and co-workers 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.

It's not what they say, it's what you hear.- Ellen Hendriksen, the 'Savvy Psychologist'

Developing a thicker skin is a job requirement and advice on the topic abounds: from seeking the nugget of 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 generalizations we then make. Ellen Hendriksen, the 'Savvy Psychologist', reminds her blog readers that, "It's not what they say, it's what you hear" that matters.

Don't take at face value

Developing a thicker skin has a lot to do with how we interpret and re-frame, as opposed to immediately taking things at face value. It's about objectively considering the information and deciding for yourself its 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.

About the Author

Pierre Battah

Human resource management consultant

Pierre Battah is Information Morning's Workplace Specialist. Battah & Associates is a management consulting firm specializing in Human Resource Management.

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