You Can Be Tough and Delicate at the Same Time

by Debra Bednar-Clark

People are multifaceted—each and every one of us has so many sides. But more times than not, we’re afraid to show all of our sides at work. We feel judged based on the limited information we put out there about ourselves, and because of that, we end up putting ourselves into a box. We think that we can’t be “X” if we’re “Y,” and vice versa.

This all stems from certain hardwired fears, and often, it’s the very parts we’re frightened to embrace that hold the key to finding happiness at work (and in life!). One of the most common underlying fears is associated with tapping into your softer side at work.

Our thinking is clouded by a conditioned modeling of others’ behaviors, in addition to a set of preconceived norms. We think there’s a certain way that leaders are supposed to be (tough) and a certain way they’re supposed to act (serious). We don’t envision a leader as being someone who’s delicate, and because of that, many people don’t see the connection between their soft skills and their bottom-line performance. But it’s a myth that you can’t be tough and delicate at the same time, and in order to achieve your best and most positive outcomes, you actually need to be both.

Luckily, everyone has traits of toughness and delicateness! They’re two of the many aspects that make you whole, and everyone embodies them. The key is to understand that and, based on your situation at a given time, reveal each dimension of yourself at the right moment. I call this the artistry of the layering technique. It requires two things:

  1. Self-awareness.

    The only way you can truly understand your environment and others is by being self-aware.

  2. Flexibility.

    Once you fully understand your surroundings, adapt accordingly. Know which side of yourself to bring forward in order to achieve the desired result.

Find an opportunity to tap into a trait based on what someone needs from you, then be tough when needed and delicate when appropriate. Take this scenario, for example:

You’re a sales leader and you’re behind your quarterly goal. Your team isn’t reaching out to clients, being creative, trying new methods, or tapping into insights to sell in ideas—even after you’ve coached them to do so. This is when you need to be tough. Let your team know that you need them to deliver on these competencies: You expect them to be in market X times in X days to deliver X results. Even if they’re met with answers of “no” along the way, they can’t stop working towards the goal. Saying that something “can’t” be done isn’t a free pass to abandon a mission altogether! Make it clear that in those situations, they’re expected to look for new opportunities and connect with new stakeholders.

While your message may be tough, you can be delicate in how you deliver it. Offer the guidance and support that your team members need, whether that’s concepting a new angle or breaking into a more senior client. You can have a strong hand in directing yet still be soft. Relatability is key here, and it often helps when you explain how you’ve personally overcome barriers to achieve sales goals in your career or share stories of other great leaders who overcame similar adversity. While struggling to meet your quarterly goal is certainly a problem on your team that needs addressing, it’s still important to show that you’re paying attention to what they ARE doing well. Compliment what they’ve set up for the long-term, and acknowledge the less-desirable market factors that may be at play. Let them know that you’re in this together.

Support and guidance are crucial here. People need to feel challenged and nurtured; focused and creative. To master that energy, you need to be both tough and delicate. I know that I sure am! I’ve been called both tough and delicate, and for good reasons. Here’s why I’ve been labeled tough:

  • I meet challenges head on and never give up—even when I don’t achieve the results I want, I persevere instead of throwing in the towel.
  • I stand up for myself and others. If someone is being disrespectful, I am going to call them out.
  • I push through my fears. I put myself in situations that stretch who I am as a person.
  • I’m tough on myself. I set massive goals and have high expectations. There’s always a bigger vision to have, more solutions to find for my clients, and new ways of providing value to explore. I always think that I should be further ahead than I am.

I know that I’m tough; and that’s a good thing. But I’m just as happily tuned into my softer side. Here’s how I know that I’m delicate:

  • I’m sensitive. I’m very aware of how other people are feeling, and I soak up their energy like a sponge. I also cry a lot—I’m a sucker for any kind of storytelling that connects to the heart. (By the time the credits rolled on A Star is Born, I was a sobbing mess!)
  • I don’t like harsh language. In fact, I had a no-swearing rule on my team at Facebook. Finally, no more F-bombs!
  • Self-care is very important to me. I’m in an outward-facing role for my company, but I’m an introvert at heart. I need down time to recharge, refuel, and be at my best.
  • I’m easily affected by my environment. I like things to look a certain way, and because I’m hyper-aware of my surroundings, I’m immediately thrown off in any setting where things are messy, the color palette is off, or the lighting is harsh.

I’ve learned about these aspects of myself over time, based on my own self-assessments and feedback from others. We don’t always see these traits in ourselves, so sometimes, it really helps to ask the people who know you best. Try recruiting someone you trust and feel comfortable with to find out your own balance of tough-to-delicate. Ask them, “How am I tough?” and “How am I delicate?” Their answers may surprise you, and in the long run, it’s great to have that kind of knowledge about how you’re perceived.

No matter what you discover about yourself, remember that everyone is tough and delicate in their own unique ways—and tapping into both sides enables others to tap into theirs. That helps you become a more effective leader, and at the end of the day, that’s what your team wants. People aren’t machines! They want to see you break free and embrace who you really are: tough, delicate, and all.


For more advice on how to reveal your whole self in your career, subscribe to my newsletter and/or follow me on Instagram @debrabednar

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