CONTRIBUTORSElite AgentOpinion

Chris Hanley: Thick or thin?

Being thick-skinned is often seen as a sign of strength, but the opposite is often true. Being concerned about what other people think and how they act shows empathy, understanding and can be a great business asset. Chris Hanley explains how.

“Only the weak worry about what other people think.”

Really?

I don’t think so.

Most people worry about what other people think.

It’s natural and it’s a strength when used properly.

People want to be well thought of and why wouldn’t they?

It’s not a fault, and anyway, you can’t just turn it off.

It’s part of you, like your hair colour or the size of your feet, and it’s a gift that can help you be really good at a bunch of things.

A young colleague of mine was verbally bashed recently by an angry older man. She said to me that she was normally thick-skinned but this conversation had really upset her.

She needed to tell me that she was normally thick-skinned because that was what business books and gurus have told her she needed to be in order to be successful.

Sadly, she thought admitting that she was upset was weak and somehow it made her a lesser person.

We have all been misled around this issue.

By the way, did anyone else notice how useless so much of what we have been taught at business conferences was during a pandemic?

“Man up and get tougher”, we have all been told.

Business coaches tell us that being successful and being thick-skinned go hand in hand.

Lockstep.

You can’t be successful without being thick-skinned’ is the mantra.

That means many of us self-judge and tell ourselves that we aren’t thick-skinned, so we won’t succeed, and therefore we can’t or don’t try.

This is wrong.

YOU DON’T NEED ‘THICK SKIN’ TO SURVIVE

You can be successful and be thin-skinned.

Yes, thin-skinned people get knocked down and bruised more often.

But it’s not about being knocked down, it’s about getting back up.

In boxing, hitting the canvas does not mean you have lost the fight.

People don’t realise that being thin-skinned and being resilient can – and do – go together. Resilience lives inside thin and thick-skinned people.

Today, it’s always about labels.

We love to label.

I have been label-phobic my whole life.

“I don’t have a career,” Tilda Swinton said, “I have a life.”

I never wanted a career or a label either.

We tell the thin-skinned to grow thick skin and to toughen up, but what does that even mean?

For me, being thin-skinned and caring is not a weakness, it’s a strength.

How?

Because it delivers us a pool of feelings that feeds our EQ and makes us better people.

Fuller people.

Being sensitive and feeling pain means that you pick up on others’ stuff.

This is the gift.

Thin-skinned people have empathy and wide EQ, and they often get stuff that thick-skinned people don’t get. It’s like having another sense.

Here’s the thing: you cannot build a strong culture in any organisation with a bunch of thick-skinned people.

It’s like trying to build a surfboard out of steel.

Why won’t it work?

Because the soft stuff is the hard stuff in organisations, and the thin-skinned just get it.

It takes time and patience and craftsmanship to build good cultures, much like building a Stradivarius violin.

A CEO friend said to me recently that with culture we needed to teach our people two things: why culture is important, and how to build it.

You can save a lot of time as a leader if you just recruit lots of caring, thin-skinned people with motors, because they get culture without the need to explain the ‘why’ to them. They build a culture that they would like to work in themselves, a culture that they would like to have their children work in.

PAIN DEFINES US ALL

An admission of failure on my part: I failed thick-skinness.

I kept thinking I should be thick-skinned. I pretended to be and I hoped one day to be: when I grew up and became a real leader. Then I realised that if I was a thick-skinned person, I wouldn’t be who I was, and I would not feel and see and do what I normally did.

I would miss stuff, important stuff, like pain and sadness and fear and feeling alone.

Pain defines all of us.

Another admission. As a leader, I love working with thin-skinned staff who wear their emotions, good and bad, close to the surface, because I don’t have to dig to know what they are thinking and feeling. It’s all just out there.

I tried to grow thick skin, then it occurred to me that it is like being bald and trying to grow hair.

There’s some stuff we just can’t do.

I tried to ignore personal stuff.

I tried to work around criticism and trauma, but I didn’t master that either.

We have been told to ‘let it go’.

I have a different strategy and it’s not perfect, but instead of avoidance, I go towards the pain or danger and I sink into it, at least for a while.

I cry with my people sometimes, if that’s what’s best at the time.

I feel whatever it is, and revisit it repeatedly, to try and dilute the pain until it goes away – and it always does.

The danger is staying parked too long in this place.

There are other reasons I like working with thin-skinned folk.

They are creative and caring. They are perceptive and very good listeners.

They are good at customer care and are very helpful to other team members.

They tell you openly what they think and feel about things, including how you are going as a boss.

And they are often brave.

Courage and fear are different things for them.

I can feel the hearts of thin-skinned people in their words, and I can see their feelings in their eyes.

As a leader, you manage them differently.

Clementine Churchill lectured her husband during the height of the Blitz in World War II, because he had lost his temper.

“Olympic calm” was required, she told her husband.

She was right then, and its still the case today for any leader.

FIND YOUR OWN PATH TO CALM

Even if you are not calm on the inside, act calm on the outside.

Find your own path to calm.

Of all the roads you will walk, this is the most important.

Explaining to thin-skinned staff that angry, hurtful interactions are often not their fault, and that it’s not personal, is also important.

On the other hand, with thick-skinned employees, you have to knock hard a couple of times on their door before you can alert them to bad behaviour, or to point out that overusing a blunt tongue on other team members, or your customers, is not always a good idea.

Thin-skinned staff can help thick-skinned people share important feelings by normalising emotions in your workspace. Thick-skinned people can help thin-skinned people navigate their way through emotional bogs without getting stuck.

One final point. When you recruit, it’s important to ask people how they have dealt with criticism in the past.

Criticism from their bosses or from their customers or from other team members. Criticism both fair and unfair.

Then, shut up and listen.

Beware of those that tell you that it’s all water off a ducks back to them.

They will cause havoc in your shop.

Remember: It’s okay to feel.

Chris Hanley OAM is the Principal at First National Byron Bay.

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