Need I display a thick skin at work?

Those of us that are sensitive sometimes feel we need to display a thick skin at work. According to Merriam-Webster, thick skin is “an ability to keep from getting upset or offended by the things other people say and do”. The question posed in this blog is whether we need to display a thick skin. This is especially for some of us that identify as being highly sensitive persons (or HSP which will be a topic for another blog in the near future). How about the quintessential pachyderms such as elephants, rhinos, and hippos? It is well known that elephants are highly sensitive and have a thick skin (okay literally). Interestingly, rhinos and hippos have very sensitive thick skins!

Okay, let us not get side-tracked by these mammal references and focus on the issue of thick skin as defined in Merriam-Webster applied to work-places. How about we begin by asking: when does one get upset or offended by things said by people in our offices? Many a time it happens when there is a mismatch of one or more of expectations, values, beliefs, or objectives. Of course, it could also be due to misperception, misinterpretation, miscommunication, or misjudgment. For all these reasons it may not be a bad idea to say that we are offended or feel upset. Constantly displaying a thick skin could possibly only make matters worse as over time things may suddenly explode.

It is worthwhile to distinguish between developing versus displaying a thick skin. Developing a thick skin means not to get offended or upset when something happens. At an individual level, there is tremendous merit in improving our emotional intelligence and thereby developing a thick skin. There are ways to do that and many books and websites are devoted to emotional intelligence (I like the 2.0 book by Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves). On the flip side, displaying a thick skin means to feel offended or upset, but not showing it. Perhaps there is a sweet spot between being melodramatic and putting up a stoic facade, as neither extremes are ideal.

From an organizational standpoint it is important to recognize that the objectives, core values, and purpose could be vastly different from person to person. So it is entirely possible that something might upset or offend one person but not many others. Thus for people in leadership positions, it would be critical to understand, evaluate, and adjust at an individual level based on their interactions with the employees. It is also important to feel the pulse and provide a safe space for the employees to display their emotions. It would be useful to catch ourselves saying things like, “not sure why he got all worked up for something trivial like this” and find ways to change that. Okay, now back to the employee perspective.

Let us look at a few specific examples: (1) Alice put her heart and soul into teaching her undergraduate course, but the students did not give her high ratings in the course evaluations; (2) Brad parks his car next to his colleague’s, and the colleague accused Brad of opening the door too wide and hitting the colleague’s car (although that never happened); (3) Cathy’s supervisor during her annual evaluation said her performance was not satisfactory although Cathy felt maybe her supervisor did not know of all the things she accomplished. In these situations, would you recommend that Alice, Brad, and Cathy display thick skins? Developing a thick skin is surely reasonable here but how about displaying? One can certainly make a case for not displaying thick skins in these cases.

Here are some thoughts with regards to when and how not to display thick skin.

Pick our battles

It may not be the best thing to take action every time someone offends or upsets us. That is because we may come across as problematic. So we could perhaps pick our battles. In particular, if there are things that go completely against our core values or something that absolutely prevents us from doing our best work, then those items we need to take action about. If we have the emotional intelligence to pick that battle calmly, then that would be ideal. Still letting people know you did not appreciate that would be useful.

Discuss with others

Those of us that do display a thick skin but are burning inside, it would help to discuss with our friends and confidants. Also, by speaking with more than one person, we could get a variety of inputs. That would even help us evaluate if we need to pick a particular incident as the battle. However, we must make sure these friends are not adding further fuel to the fire. In addition, some of our friends and confidants may be able to take some action if we are unable to do so due to various circumstances.

Communicate effectively

Even if we choose to display a thick skin, sometimes it would help to communicate. For example in case (1) above, Alice could communicate with her future students that they should let her know what is bothering them, perhaps anonymously through a poll. In case (2), Brad could communicate with his supervisor what happened, so that the supervisor is informed and can see if such a pattern is repeated with others. In case (3), Cathy could send weekly or monthly emails to her boss listing the things she did so that the situation does not repeat. There would hopefully be good ways to communicate effectively in other circumstances as well.

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