I was fascinated by an article I read recently by Lucy Kellaway in the Financial Times on 6/17/12 called, “The Thin Line Between Thick Skin and Complacency.” She points out in her article that in business, we are often encouraged to become almost impervious to outside criticism. In fact, she claims that “every executive coach tells every aspiring person who has to deal with criticism the same thing: don’t take it personally.” In other words, develop a thick skin.
Given that prevailing reality, it is no wonder the public has developed such a low opinion of CEOs and worse that recently so many top executives seem to have walked right into disasters of their own making during public relations emergencies like the BP oil spill or the financial debacle on Wall Street. These leaders lost touch and connection with their employees, customers, and the public at large as they developed their thick skins and ability to repel criticism. The vibe from these leaders is “a feeling of smug or uncritical satisfaction with oneself or one’s achievements” – literally the dictionary definition of complacency.
According to Kellaway, “instead of telling successful people to grow thicker skins – which time will help them grow anyway – we should be urging them to look after their skin and keep it as thin as it always was.”
Kellaway further argues that “the ideal is to have a skin as thin as an earthworm’s but the constitution of an ox. And also, perhaps, a clotting mechanism to ensure a scab forms on wounds and the victim does not bleed to death.”
Graphic as her quote is, it does point to a much more productive pathway for you if you are committed to being a highly effective leader who has the ability to develop and lead high performing teams. Be open to paying attention to the biting comments. They will energize you out of complacency and challenge you to do better.
While small to mid-sized company executives may not have developed the thick skin towards public criticism in the media in the same way that very large company leaders have, they may still have this “thick skin response” when it comes to feedback from their teams, vendors or clients. The important piece is not what size company you lead or whether criticism is coming from internal or external sources. The important thing is to consider not being armored and impervious, but instead to be more permeable and allowing feedback to actually have an impact on you.
Another way of saying this is that a background or foundation of mutual trust, respect, and safety is fundamental for productive dialogue and for strong, collaborative working relationships. To be trusted, others must know that you are being as authentic and transparent as possible and that you actually care about their well being.
So the bottom line is, be open to feedback, especially when you don’t like the news. You may not need to take it all to heart, but if you consider it with curiosity, you may find areas of complacency in your leadership that need a little jump start. Criticism can provide that spark if you allow it in.