This is the second article in a series on the characteristics that make community managers tick. Be sure to read the prologue, The Attributes of Great Community Managers (fixed link), to see what’s coming and to understand why I’m writing this series. This time we’re talking about resilience and thick skin.
If there’s one common theme I’m driving home in this article series so far, it’s this: being a community manager is hard.
CMs have one of the hardest jobs anybody can have in the business world. There’s little pay, often little appreciation, and a ton of work. Community managers are sometimes treated like replaceable cogs in a machine that facilitates happiness and future-of-work goodness in one direction only: toward the members.
So unless you’ve lucked out, dear community manager, and landed a job with one of the many fantastic indie spaces or one of the benevolent-but-rare large brands, it’s likely you’re eating a shit sandwich every day until you burn out, move up or move on.
And sadly, it’s becoming increasingly more common for founders and colleagues to know very little about the community management role due to the corporatization of flexible workspaces and the obsession with scale. We have more and more non-practicing founders and less and less people on the team serving dual or triple roles, except for the CM. That means ever more founders and the teams around them just don’t get it when it comes to the difficulty of the community manager role.
And the members? They don’t see your team dynamics correctly. Because you’re the one that’s visible to them, they assume you have say over everything. They think you have power. They think you’re a superhero. They think you can solve their problems.
But of course, you can’t fix everything. You’re only one person with only so many arms and legs. What’s more, you need team approval to solve some situations. Moreover, many times your team doesn’t want to solve a problem for the long term, but for the short term. So when you can’t be a miracle worker, the members get upset. They begin to wonder if you care about them. Then they take it out on you.
As if this couldn’t get worse, remember you’re only one Slack, WhatsApp, or email message away from letting these people get under your skin.
But you can’t let them. You must be resilient. You must grow thick skin.
Thick skin means you don’t take the struggle, the disrespect, the low pay, or the overwhelming to-do list personally. All of these things may be reality, but it’s not about you. It’s just the job. You let the emotion and significance of these challenges roll off your back like the water off the back of a Mallard duck.
I know. This isn’t easy to do.
It’s challenging because most CMs don’t naturally have thick skin. A lot of this has to do with some of the other attributes of great community managers which I outlined in the prologue, namely caring and empathy. All that caring and understanding means you resonate a lot with other people’s feelings, which subsequently means negative or demanding feedback makes you feel judged and inadequate.
So the very things that make you great at being a community manager likely make you unprepared for the demanding nature of the job. By feeling the need to please the long list of stakeholders that a coworking space comes with, you also feel beholden to their whims and opinions. The universe loves a paradox.
I’m not an expert on developing thick skin, but I’ll tell you the things that have worked for me:
- Never breaking
Have you ever met somebody who, while the same age as you, seemed so much more mature, never letting anything get under their skin? They appeared to be braver, more resilient, more confident, and less out of control with their emotions. They were impervious to setbacks and positive in the face of adversity.
Well, there are two possible causes for this.
Perhaps somebody in their lives, likely their parents, instilled in them a sense of self-worth and resilience that took root. Alternatively, it’s possible their life has been a lot harder than yours in some way, plus they’ve had to deal with that difficulty for longer than you, and somehow they never broke under pressure, but instead learned from it and thrived in spite of it.
In both cases they had to go through life practicing this resilience, reinforcing it over time, and never letting the setbacks take a chunk out of their self-worth.
In either case, they developed thick skin.
So what if you didn’t win the life lottery of great parents or weren’t dealt the perfect hand of adversity that you could thrive from? There’s still hope.
Seek Out Discomfort
Resilience and thick skin are borne out of discomfort. So if you want to develop them, seek out discomfort and overcome it.
Start by asking, “what things am I afraid of doing for no tangible reason?” Things like public speaking and standing up to authority figures come to mind, so I’ll use them as playgrounds for overcoming discomfort.
Like many people, I used to be afraid of public speaking. I was scared of looking like an idiot or of people judging me and what I said critically.
Luckily, when I was working with Impact Hub, our CEO hated public speaking. So he would always ask me if I would be willing to speak in front of the crowds at events. Because I hated it less than he did, I went for it. At every event, I would address the attendees. I would speak on behalf of the coworking space to hundreds of people on a regular basis. I did this countless times. So needless to say, I don’t hesitate to speak in front of crowds now. While I might still feel a little nervous once on stage, that nervousness never holds me back from getting up there.
Two exciting things happened during my time speaking on behalf of Impact Hub. First I worked through the discomfort and fear of criticism until it no longer was a factor in my decision-making process. Second, I started loving critical feedback because some of it was good.
Never listen to the people who tell you to ignore critical feedback. They’re saying this because they don’t have thick skin. They are afraid that, like them, you’ll crumble under negative feedback.
But criticism is part of the game if you’re a community manager. When you’re in the arena, you’re going to get beat up.
Besides, whether or not feedback is constructive is up to you, not the deliverer. As you continue to develop thick skin and resilience, you’ll start to invite more feedback because it’s a significant part of what makes you better at whatever you’re doing. And it’s impossible to solicit feedback that’s always positive. The good comes with the bad.
Standing up to Authority Figures
Another area that people struggle with is conflict, especially with authority figures. That conflict usually comes in the form of defending your decisions or criticising the actions of your boss or bosses.
Now that I think about it, I’ve practically made a sport out of standing up to authority figures over my career, and I’ll share a couple of the stories with you. One is from my early days, before “coworking Ryan.” The other story is a two-parter from my first coworking space, Impact Hub Salt Lake.
If you want to skip to the coworking-focused stories, I won’t be hurt. I promise. Thick skin, remember?
Once upon a time, I worked at Chick-fil-A. I was 16. One of my jobs was to clean the toilets at the end of the night. I know, very glamorous. Anyway, I’d just finished and told the manager on duty that the restrooms were clean. I think her name was Amber. “Okay Amber, I’m done. Is there anything else left to do?”
Now, this girl didn’t like me at all. Maybe she was jealous of the then curly locks that twirled in all their majesty downward to my shoulders (I have pictures). But okay, that probably wasn’t her reason, but I was seriously at a loss as to why she didn’t like me. I always tried to be kind to her, but with no result.
Anyway, she went to spot-check my work and came back with a triumphant gait. “It doesn’t look like you cleaned at all!” she proudly claimed. “The toilet’s still dirty.”
“Where? I definitely cleaned them!” I replied incredulously and with a bit of a chuckle.
She said there was urine, to use a polite version of her word, on the men’s toilet seat. I immediately knew what she was talking about. However, it wasn’t urine but some stain that wasn’t removable. I thought it might have been paint.
So she marched me into the bathroom to inspect it together. At this point, I was seriously struggling to keep it together. I was tired, it was a long day, and this was the last thing I needed to do before I could go home and play video games.
“It’s paint, Amber,” I said with a haughty tone. Amber didn’t like my attitude. She challenged me. If she could clean it, then some nebulous bad thing would happen. However, she didn’t succeed. From that day forward I had a target on my back.
Within a few weeks, I management reduced my schedule to one shift per week. Then, when I asked for more shifts, I was promptly “laid off” by the General Manager. He called it that, but in truth, I was canned. I can’t be 100% sure, but I’m quite confident that Amber was the culprit underlying my demise.
I felt pretty bad about it for a while. It was a big blow to my self-esteem. To be fired from such a low-skilled job was downright sad. I let it get under my skin.
However, as with all things, those feelings passed. A few weeks later I landed a much better job with much better pay where I stayed for two years. I still remember this simple story because it was one of the earliest moments that I stood up to a workplace authority when I was clearly in the right.
The other stories I’ll share with you place us ten years in the future. By that time I’d had a lot more practice with authority figures, so I was bolder, clearer, and more steadfast in the face of pushback.
At one point I was in charge of basically everything at Impact Hub Salt Lake: operations, marketing, events, and all of our staff. Because of this, I was obsessed with setting up processes to make my job less impossible.
One such process was for events management. I’d broken us out of our work-trade staffing model and begun paying our Events Hosts an excellent hourly rate for working events. I built this fee into the event rental contracts. However, as events ramped up, I was having a tough time managing the team. I needed an Event Manager. But, the board wouldn’t give me a budget to hire anybody. So I took things into my own hands and enlisted one out of my own salary.
When it eventually came out that our Event Manager was, in fact, not a volunteer, but that I’d been paying her secretly, there was pushback. I held firm on the matter, and the board ended up bringing her onto the team.
Part two of this story is that we had an events calendar where we penciled in and scheduled all event space rentals and internal events. Only I, the Event Manager, and one of the board members had editing access. However, the board member kept scheduling things without going through our processes. He would promise the space to his friends and to non-profits of which he was on the board. He would offer the space for free.
What he didn’t seem to grasp was that we had to staff these events, which meant we needed to pay our events team to be there, which also meant we needed to charge his friends for using the space. Additionally, we had financial targets we needed to hit, so giving away free space at this time was not part of the plan. What’s worse, he did these favors for people without any approval from other board members or checking with the events team.
So I revoked his access to the events calendar and sent him an email about why I’d done so.
The result was the most pushback I’ve gotten for anything in my working career. I sat in my chair as this board member became more and more irate because I wouldn’t comply with his wants. Thinking back on it now is somewhat entertaining.
“I’m your boss, and you have to do what I say,” was the gist of what he told me. “Why are you doing this?!”
But again, I stood my ground. “Mr. Board Member, you’re not my boss, the CEO is my boss. If he tells me to do what you say, I’ll do it. Until then, if you want to host an event, you have to work within the process. Otherwise, things get messed up, and we have scheduling conflicts. From now on only the Event Manager and I have access to the events calendar. And if you want to add something to it, we’re more than happy to set it up for you, but you need to go through the process and understand we have to pay staff to work the event.”
The board ultimately took my side in the matter.
Building resilience and growing thick skin are critical for community managers because they save you from massive emotional drain. It can be a tough balance to strike between these traits and those of empathy and caring. However, it is possible.
Perhaps one of the best examples I’ve ever seen of this was my friend Hannah at Impact Hub Budapest. I worked from there last year and helped the team a little over three months. While there I observed, as I often do, the internal workings of the space.
Hannah was the most delightful community manager I’ve ever met and an incredibly hard worker. But she was also direct and clear about rules and expectations. Whether it be with members or event rental clients, she stood her ground when she needed to. In many ways, she was the perfect community manager, even though such a thing doesn’t exist.
Hannah’s not in the industry anymore because her passions have taken her elsewhere, but she’s proof that it is possible to care about your community and team plus be resilient and have thick skin. It’s likely you’ve met or worked with somebody like this. That means you can strike that balance too.
Going forward with this series, we’ll be talking less about these defensive attributes, and more about offense. We’ll talk about caring, empathy, curiosity, anticipation, and being multidisciplinary, as well as many others. We won’t abandon defense altogether, because it’s still super valuable. But from here on out, the attributes are more about growing and nurturing the coworking community you know you’re capable of leading.