Does Leadership Always Mean Having a Thick Skin? (If it Does, I’m in Big Trouble.)

LexBlog President, Kevin McKeown, shared this Forbes piece Thick Skin Thinking: How To Use Negative Feedback To Your Advantage At Work with everyone in our company on Friday. It’s a great article about the value of critical self-awareness and the author is spot-on in saying:

Research shows people that are better at handling negative feedback tend to be more successful.

I would agree completely that being honest about our capabilities is going to be far more effective for our professional development than either pretending we’re perfect or believing we’re completely useless. No one is without flaws, or without hope.

However, I feel this article is missing a critical component of the critical feedback equation. Author, Denis Wilson, gives an example of a boss over-reacting to a couple of typos in a letter an employee writes.  Wilson says,

The lesson to learn: Your boss may be frustrated and angry, but that’s not what you should address. Rather, it’s the errors you made and how you will avoid doing the same in the future.

He’s right, but where is the accountability for the boss to deliver feedback in a way that the receiver can actually receive it? When I read this article, the first thought that went through my mind was, wow, if you have an ounce of emotion about your professional performance, you’re screwed in the leadership department. But I have worked with employees of all kinds of emotional sensibilities and seen professional success in all shapes and sizes. Some employees I coached needed their feedback direct and to the point, brutally honest, mincing no words. In fact, if you tried to deliver it any other way, it sailed right past without their even noticing. On the other hand, I had other employees that would fall apart with that type of honesty, wielded as a weapon, and they would be so upset they couldn’t hear you either. In those cases, a lighter, gentler touch was in order. I suppose I could presume that those employees who could “take it” had the right stuff, leadership-wise, and therefore anyone who needed the softer touch wasn’t worth my time. Of course, I sure would have missed out on helping any number of employees grow and improve if I had taken that one-size-fits-all approach.

As Kevin and I discussed the post, he countered that a leader is, at best, only 50% of any conversation and it is therefore incumbent upon the employee to choose to take the feedback as constructive. He also noted that any leader worth their salt does not try to mold themselves after others, but rather stays true to themselves. And, finally, he offered that the best leaders gave feedback, both positive and constructive, constantly – every single day. I would agree that I can’t do the listening/receiving for the other person, and that I can only truly be effective when I am my authentic self, and that feedback should be ongoing, not once a year come performance review time. Where we differ is that I see it as my role as a manager to be willing to adapt more of myself in order to effectively deliver my message to my employee. I can still be myself and either be blunt or be gentle. It is possible be authentic and still make a choice about how to approach any given conversation.  {And, kudos to my professional relationship with him that we can have a lively debate about our differences without anyone taking it personally.}

Perhaps this particular article struck a chord for me because I, myself, am in more of the sensitive camp. I absolutely want honest feedback about my performance and I am eager to learn how to improve. Nonetheless, it’s not always easy for me to hear that I am coming up short and that I have disappointed those who are counting on me. I have come home from work more than once bearing a performance evaluation that I considered damning that my husband looked over and then scratched his head and said, “uh, you do know this is actually good, right?” However, these things have not sent me into a spiral of self-loathing, and I really do take the time to glean the lessons I need to learn and let the rest go, but at the moment of “impact” I must confess I do sometimes take them a little more to heart than I should. I suppose I might be farther along the leadership track if I learned to let these things roll off my back more easily, but then again, part of what I think makes me an effective manager, a good trainer and coach, and good at delivering service to my clients, is my strong sense of empathy and sensitivity. I think I will stick to Kevin’s earlier point that the most effective leaders are first and foremost true to themselves.

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One Comment on “Does Leadership Always Mean Having a Thick Skin? (If it Does, I’m in Big Trouble.)”

  1. Karla says:

    Not very many “one size fits all” garments look good on anybody. I would rather have a manager and colleagues that get to know me and have my best interests at heart, and will tell me so in a way that is both respectful of me and true to themselves. Thanks for your observations.


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