Keep a Thin Skin

Leaders shouldn’t be “thick skinned” — not if that means shrugging off negative feedback that might actually be correct.

Leaders need to be emotionally resilient, unattached to outcomes, and assume positive intent.

Our tool here is “The Ladder of Inference.” We all have one — using it well allows us to deliberately choose how we’ll react to the world.

We don’t react to stimuli. We react to what we think/believe/feel the stimuli mean.

There’s a gap between the input and the response, which is filled with STORIES and BELIEFS about what certain stimuli mean. (Without a story or a belief, stimuli would have no meaning.)

The process of “reframing” is the process of offering up a new story, so a person can experience (interpret) the exact same stimuli in a new way.

Having a “thick skin” can mean — CAN mean — that you interpret the stimulus as negative, but you shrug it off, muting your emotions. (This is dangerous, as Brene Brown tells us in her TED talk on vulnerability.) And it leaves you unable to learn from accurate feedback that happens to be negative.

Better (in my opinion) is being able to quickly come up with THREE STORIES that all explain the experience equally well — with one of the stories being super-positive, one neutral, and one negative.

Example: I’m stuck behind a super-slow driver I cannot pass.

Negative story: This guy is a jerk.

Neutral story: This guy is unable or unwilling to drive at a normal speed, for reasons I don’t know.

Positive story: This guy somehow knows I need to practice my patience, and has taken time from his busy life to get in front of me and drive slower than he wants to, just to give me this opportunity to practice. What a cool guy. I owe him one.

With all three stories available to me, I may still pick the first one, but I’m choosing WITH AWARENESS.

Another trick is to ask, “When did I ever do what he’s doing?”

Oh, yeah — once I had a casserole on the passenger seat, and no lid, so I drove like a total granny. Oh, and another time, my then-wife had a migraine. Oh, and the time I had the weird engine sound. Oh, and…

By this point you’re much more willing to give the other person some slack. No “thick skin” required.


  1. Assume positive intentions from others.
  2. Invent three stories.
  3. Remember when you did the exact same thing.
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