Why “Grow a Thicker Skin” Isn’t the Answer
Disrespectful behavior is disrespectful, period. Below is a piece I wrote in 2014 that makes the case for Respectful Leadership clear. Feeling disrespected is a sign that your company may have a toxic work environment, not that you should be less sensitive.
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It’s pretty likely that if you’re disrespected by someone at work and you mention it to someone else, you’ll be told “grow a thicker skin,” or “don’t be so sensitive.” That’s far easier said than done.
The fact is, when someone disrespects you while you’re trying to do your job, you’re affected by it, regardless of the thickness of your skin. For example, when someone cuts you off mid-sentence in front of others during a meeting, their message to you is “What I have to say is more important than what you have to say.”
Our brains perceive even small stuff like this as a threat, we go into “fight, flight, freeze” mode and our bodies release the stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine. These trigger increased heart and breathing rates and higher blood pressure. And if you’re working in a place where there’s a fairly constant stream of disrespectful behavior, then constantly elevated stress hormones can cause anxiety, depression, and elevated testosterone levels. These can lead to aggressive behavior, decreasing collaboration and more disrespect in a spiraling cycle of stress that will eventually come to be known as a “toxic work environment.” If you’ve ever worked in a toxic environment, odds are you hated it and tried to get out, or you put up with it because you thought you had no choice. Not good.
From a business perspective, allowing a toxic work environment to continue is just plain dumb; it’s costly in terms of increased conflict, absenteeism, mistakes and turnover and reduced productivity and customer service. Respectful Leaders need to step up and step in to nip disrespectful behavior in the bud before it does permanent damage.
So when people tell you to “grow a thicker skin,” what they really mean is “stop complaining about disrespectful behavior.” That’s not the answer. The answer is that disrespectful behavior is destructive and bad for business, and it needs to be shut down.