How Do You Develop a Thick Skin?

A recent study reinforces something I’ve learned the long, hard way: that to succeed in the workplace, we women need to desensitize ourselves to criticism and develop a thick skin because, inevitably, negative comments are going to come our way.2013-07-14-feelingdefeatedThe study, conducted by linguist Kieran Snyder for Fortune Magazine, examined 248 performance reviews of people employed by 28 technology companies, 58% of whom were men, and 42% women.Kiernan found that the managers executing these reviews, no matter whether they were male or female, gave female employees more negative feedback than they gave male employees.Even more telling, 76% of the negative feedback given to the women included some kind of personality criticism. In contrast, only 2% of the men’s critical reviews included negative personality comments. “Abrasive,” “judgmental,” “aggressive” or “strident” were the faults for which the women were most often blamed.What’s the take-away from this?First off, now I know why, throughout my career, my personality has been criticized far more than my work, with “bossy,” “impatient,” and “dismissive” being the epithets most often hurled at me.But there’s a more important lesson here, made by executive coach Tara Mohr in an article in last week’s The New York Times Sunday Review:“If a woman wants to do substantive work of any kind, she’s going to be criticized — with comments not just about her work but also about herself. She must develop a way of experiencing criticism that allows her to persevere in the face of it.”For many years I was terrible at taking criticism, especially when it was directed at my personality rather than my work. Either I’d balk at what was being said or I’d be defensive, justifying or trying to explain away whatever I’d been called on. My resistance covered up my vulnerability. I was deeply stung by criticism — I’d stew over it for weeks — and it engendered self-doubts and chipped away at my confidence.But I got beyond that. Now, more often than not, I can hear negative feedback without getting hooked by it. What enabled me to make this leap?

  • First, I had a major, liberating insight about my relationship to criticism. The more upset I was about a negative comment, the more likely it was that, in my heart of hearts, I feared the comment was true. So, instead of rejecting the feedback, I started to use it to look at myself more honestly. Criticism became a pathway to self-discovery and an opportunity to grow. I saw, for example, that I can be bossy, impatient, and dismissive — but now I’m often able to catch myself in the act and adjust my behavior accordingly.
  • Second, I came to grips with the fact that if you have a job, criticism simply comes with the territory. To use Mohr’s language, I “internalized the fact that all substantive work brings both praise and criticism.” To think I’d only get praise was a fantasy.
  • Third, I realized that when someone criticizes me, it’s often as much about them as it’s about me. It could be that my behavior has pushed one of their buttons, or they’ve attacked something I’ve done, not because it was inappropriate, but because it’s something they’d never do — like being candid and direct, which they condemn as being “too aggressive.” Seeing that takes some of the sting out of criticism.

Which brings me to my last point. Criticism never stops stinging. But by putting it into perspective, you can develop the thick skin that will make that sting fade quickly away.