Developing a thick skin

Programmers are notoriously thin-skinned, and many managers come up from programming. Here are some tips for toughening up, whether you're considering management or are already there.

The IT manager takes it from all sides. Grief can be dished out from senior management, from users, from lateral managers, and, in subtle ways, from a manager’s own troops. There’s probably no worse place to be in an IT command chain than line manager when it comes to catching flak.

That flak takes many forms. Some of it is good and proper, such as pressure from above when you don’t hit your marks. This is good; it keeps you on your toes. Some of it is proper but not so good, such as when you haggle with other managers over resources or with users over changes in plans. It has to be done, but minor damage is possible. And some of it is a complete waste of your time, in the form of unfair criticism and even personal attacks. These lead nowhere.

You just can’t do this job if you don’t develop some armor. But, just like the assaults that make it necessary, that armor can be good or bad. You may also have another reason to pay attention to developing your armor: If you came to management through programming, odds are you didn’t bring any armor with you. Programmers as a group often seem notoriously unenamored of criticism.

The many faces of criticism
There are many different forms of criticism that an IT manager receives and many different motivations behind them. Developing a sense of what’s being said to you, why, and what response you should make may take some doing, but it will make you more skillful in dealing with your working environment.

Before looking at these, however, an important clarification should be made. "Developing a thick skin" doesn't mean cultivating the tendency to just tune everything out. This is the emptiest and least productive response. Like every other aspect of your role, coping with criticism and attack should be a thoughtful process. When such an event occurs, there are a number of questions that you should consider.

Who is your critic? Is it someone involved in your current work, elsewhere in the management org chart? Is it someone working for you? A project team member (user or lateral manager) not under your authority? Or is it someone with no direct influence over your working agenda?

What is the nature of the criticism/attack? Is it your work that’s being criticized? Or is it your point of view, your future plans? Is your team under attack? Or are the remarks aimed at you personally?

What's the motivation behind it? There are many reasons why criticism is put forth. Is this a serious attempt to identify flaws in your performance, or your team’s? Is it purely political? Or is conflict of personality coming to the fore?

Is it valid? Whatever the nature and motivation of the criticism, you must be honest enough to look at it objectively. Is the criticism authentic, and should it be taken to heart?

How does it make you feel? Does the criticism spark a defensive attitude in you? Does it make you angry? Do you feel some validity in it that causes you embarrassment? It’s important to be honest with yourself about your internal reaction, because it can lead you astray in your public response, if a response is called for.

What is the appropriate response? This is the central question. Your team, your superiors, and your colleagues all perceive you, to some degree, by the manner in which you respond to criticism and attack. If you’re new to the management role, or feel some awkwardness in this area of your work, then serious thought on this point may serve you well.

Taking it in
It takes a very experienced and practiced point of view to respond to criticism well at the moment it is received. This veteran response is seldom seen. Most often it's best to process criticism before responding to it.

When someone has attacked you, particularly in a public way, some attention may come your way. Your reaction may be watched by others (in many cases this may not matter, but if those watching are under your authority, it may matter a great deal). The best thing you can display is a thoughtful demeanor and a cool head.

Sorting through the questions above before responding is largely a private process, but there may be times when it's wise to seek out a separate opinion. This can be the view of a trusted colleague, or your lieutenant, or some party who knows you well yet is unattached to your work. Here again, a thoughtful approach is best. If you need that second opinion, take care in choosing its source.

Responding with grace and strength
A good first step in deciding how you will respond to criticism is to review the responses you’ve seen in others in the past that have not impressed you. Two such responses loom large: an overt defensiveness and a barrage of counter-criticism. You’ve surely seen these occur, and you’ve probably seen them in your own working environment. You probably didn’t think much of those responses in others, so why let others see them in you?

Here are some straightforward, focused responses to criticism that will keep you on track, garner respect from others, and curtail negativity:
  1. If the criticism has merit, freely acknowledge it and thank the critic publicly, if possible. This is honest, projects responsibility, and defuses the efforts of anyone who is trying to score points against you.
  2. Ignore personal attacks. Ignore them, that is, when they’re aimed at you. When they’re aimed at one or more members of your team, step up and address them boldly—not with a counterattack, but with a sober denouncement of the practice. Let your people know you’ll defend them if needed.
  3. Add pluses to the minuses. If you receive public, work-related criticism, and it is valid, don’t be shy about acknowledging it—but if there is a way to add an upside to the down side without sounding defensive or boastful, by all means put it forth. Sure, your group missed several deadlines, and you know you must keep a watchful eye on your budget—but your testing is going splendidly, and you have great confidence in your people to see the project through.

Always remember that everyone is watching, not just those above you. And they notice more than your day-to-day performance. Strength, self-confidence, and an unwillingness to play games will not go unnoticed. And in this leaner, meaner era, graciousness is all too rare, and a trait that will bring you respect.

How thick is your skin?
Can you identify with the situations Scott describes here? Do you find his tips helpful? How else do you recommend responding to criticism? Post a message in the discussion board below.



Scott Robinson is a 20-year IT veteran with extensive experience in business intelligence and systems integration. An enterprise architect with a background in social psychology, he frequently consults and lectures on analytics, business intelligence...

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