In the past when I thought about leadership traits, self-compassion never rose to the surface. Not that I thought it was a bad trait; I just underestimated its power. But my eyes were opened when I attended a webinar by Rich Fernandez and Steph Stern based on their article “Self-Compassion Will Make You a Better Leader” in the November 9, 2020, issue of Harvard Business Review. Rich is the CEO and Steph is a Director with the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute (SIYLI, pronounced “silly”). “Search Inside Yourself” began as an internal training program at Google that became so popular that it was spun off as a non-profit. Today SIYLI works to promote mindfulness, empathy, emotional intelligence, and resilience in individuals, teams, and organizations around the world.
In the webinar, Rich and Steph discussed research conducted by Juliana Breines and Serena Chen of UC Berkeley to determine the impact of self-compassion. Their research indicated that people who were self-compassionate outperformed people who were self-assured when recovering from a negative or difficult situation.
In one experiment, a control group was told to journal about their hobbies, a self-esteem group wrote about their strengths and accomplishments, and the self-compassion group journaled about kindness and acceptance.
All three groups were then given a challenging task like a difficult vocabulary test. After they got their results, they were allowed to study and take the test again.
The self-compassion group took advantage of the opportunity to study and learn, and the second time they took the test, they outperformed both the control and self-esteem groups. When faced with a setback, the self-compassion group had more of a growth mindset and didn’t connect a poor performance with past mistakes. They were motivated to grow and learn and were willing to expend effort to improve after a setback.
Breines and Chen concluded, “… self-compassion may increase self-improvement motivation given that it encourages people to confront their mistakes and weaknesses without either self-deprecation or defensive self-enhancement.”
According to the analysis, people who are self-assured don’t tend to review situations and think about what they did wrong. As a result, they don’t learn at the same rate — if at all — as people who are self-compassionate, since they don’t reflect. When they fail, they tend not to bounce back as quickly because they haven’t developed as strong a capacity to learn.
Some of my clients who aren’t self-assured haven’t developed self-compassion. They often let mistakes weigh on them and erode their confidence. That approach isn’t helpful either. It can make people risk-averse or overly self-critical; neither attitude promotes learning and resilience.
Fortunately, self-compassion — with its core elements of self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness — is learnable. Rich and Steph suggest several “micro” practices to develop and deepen self-compassion.
The first practice is a check-in. Before you start your day, meeting, or conversation, take a deep breath in and exhale while noticing how you feel — no judgment, just awareness. Taking a moment to center yourself puts you in a calm space to deal with whatever comes up, and it helps you recognize your mood. Perhaps you are feeling anxious because you have a project due. When you notice this feeling, you can acknowledge it with your team so they’ll know they’re not the reason for your anxiety. Being aware of your own mood also helps you understand the source of any unease within a group.
Another tool is to recall a situation where you weren’t successful. Write a few sentences about the situation. On the left side of the page write your feelings about yourself in that situation. The feelings tend to be critical and judgmental: I was embarrassed, I looked stupid, I should have been better prepared. Then imagine a friend is describing this same experience to you. On the right side, write down what you would say to your friend: You did your best, everyone forgets things, it’s a minor mistake. Say those things on the right side to yourself and forgive yourself for the setback. This exercise doesn’t absolve you of the responsibility to rectify the situation but rather helps you develop compassion for yourself.
A third tool is an acceptance exercise. As you breathe in say to yourself “I do my best,” and as you breathe out say “I let go the rest.” For those of us who work late into the evening but don’t feel we’ve accomplished enough, this exercise helps.
A mediation I often use is what I call my GAP analysis. Unlike the traditional gap analysis that compares current versus desired performance, my GAP is a mnemonic reminding me to focus on positives:
G = one thing I am grateful for
A = one recent accomplishment
P = one thing I am proud of
This exercise puts me in an upbeat frame of mind and helps me feel more compassionate toward myself. Like the practices Rich and Steph recommend, it doesn’t take a lot of time and can go a long way to helping you become a better, more compassionate leader.