01 November 2010 ~ 0 Comments

A vital trait for the Community Manager: Thick Skin

There’s a general positivity around Community Management, with a lot of great content being written about this fantastic career path. However, very little is discussed around one of the negatives, which is the experience of having abuse slung at you by some of your disgruntled community members.

Whether this is am occasional occurrence or a daily one (in which case it might be time to think about moving on to a more enjoyable role, unless you’re a masochist), a great Social Media Community Manager has the ability to harden their skin at will. Not everyone will like you or how you go about managing your community, but you need to be able to step back and breathe before reacting to aggravation and criticism.

I covered the value of knowing how to remain impartial, and having a thick skin but knowing when to use it and when not to is just as important.

If you want to achieve something and do things well, you will need to commit to a course of action based on self-belief, or on your own understanding of what works and what doesn’t. Of course, the minute you set yourself onto a specific path, you will run into people who disagree with you, which can lead to robust criticism and possibly abuse.

How do I know whether I’m thick skinned?

Being thick skinned means that you are not easily offended, but at the other extreme it also means you are unaffected by the needs and feelings of others, or insensitive. This goes against the accepted trait of inclusiveness that is necessary to be an effective Community Manager.

If you only ever pay attention to positive comments regarding your work as the community manager or your company’s output and don’t pay attention or worry much about negative opinions, then you are most likely thick-skinned (or an eternal positivist).

But the bottom line is that you need to find a balance between completely disregarding negative feedback and living in a fantasy world while your community migrate to other sites, or letting people derail you from your goals through their esteem sapping comments.

What does having a thick skin mean?

It’s easy to keep your actions to yourself, in effect reducing the chances of criticism inflicting self-doubt and threatening your ability to motivate yourself. You need to be thick skinned enough to be capable of being transparent of your actions and allowing others to comment on them without taking negative comments so personally you struggle to maintain your focus.

However good community service means starting from the point of putting yourself in your member’s or customer’s shoes and understanding their viewpoint and perspective on the situation. You need to display understanding, empathy and responsiveness.[pullquote]“Talent is helpful [...], but guts are absolutely essential.” – Jessamyn West[/pullquote]

Rule of life #836: It’s not all about you. As easy as it is to feel things should work out to your best advantage at all times, no one person is the center of the universe.

What’s the worth of developing  a thick skin?

It’s easy to get offended or panic-stricken at the sort of complaints that are thrown your way without any interest on the complainant’s part in resolving them. You are keen to help, but your tormentor is hellbent on raising their profile by shouting as loud as they can, and in the process jabbing through your emotional armour. Or it could be that you have reached out to try and fix a problem a customer is having, but you haven’t received a response or acknowledgment. You end up torturing yourself over whether you tried the right approach or not.

There’s usually a motivation for people to behave the way they are, whether feelings of inadequacy or anger, personal frustrations with an aspect of their life, or maybe they just like being nasty to strangers online. Either way, it isn’t for you to worry about and become self-reflective over.

Having a thick-enough skin to see past people’s behaviour in delivering their message means you can truly visualise and assess what is really going on, unearthing truth wrapped up in insults or abuse.

The reality of Community Management

There are potentially few jobs outside of the customer service field that can be as dispiriting than being tasked with customer support, since almost every single person who gets in touch is doing so because something  somewhere has failed, and you are the person who will take the brunt of their frustration. But you need to keep reminding yourself that anything they say is certainly not directed at you personally and that as the public representation of your company, they are treating you as they would the corporate entity you represent.

The social media community manager will end up in situations where they take it from all sides. Pressure will be exerted from senior management, from members of your community, from lateral coworkers needing something from you, and from people who are not customers but want to add their two pennies worth because they are having a slow day. You’ll soon be polishing your tin helmet as you bob and weave through flak.

Some of this aggravation is worthwhile, in the form of pressure when you are not hitting your targets or requirements to take the community to another level. Some of it is justified for not much fun, when you need to control expectations of your user-base and navigate changes to them. Finally, some of it is a complete waste or energy and time, when unfair criticism and abuse is thrown your way by irate customers.

You will need to motivate yourself on scraps of thanks and pure self-belief in your cause, and keep your cool at all times (publicly, anyway). Your role is as a connector and a therapist, and you will be very lucky to have a few friendly members’ shoulders to rest on when the going gets tough.

But won’t it turn me into a callous and insensitive Community Manager?

The problem with going all out in developing a thick skin is that the more you shield yourself from negative comments, the more you risk placing yourself in a distorted reality. The ideal position is one where you have a thick enough skin to be able to embrace negative comments rather than reject or ignore them.

Having a thick skin doesn’t make you insensitive; what it does do is allow you to take abusive comments, pick them apart to identify the true problem and remove the nastiness, and still get out of bed in the morning with a spring in your step (or at least not dread going into the office).

Being defensive, nit-picky, or emotionally dependent on your community’s approval is not a healthy way to about community management. You need criticism, because it will guide you and your company to make improvements in your processes and product. The best way to be open to such criticism is to develop a thicker skin, which isn’t as simple as just ignoring negative comments.

[Photo by LOLren]

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