Based on our experience training tens of thousands of leaders on the role of self-compassion in emotional intelligence and effective leadership, we’d like to share some key tips and techniques for cultivating this critical skill.
First, it’s useful to accurately understand self-compassion. Put simply, it means taking a perspective toward yourself as you would with a friend or colleague who is facing a setback or challenge. It’s skill that is simple, but it’s surprisingly difficult for many of us. According to Kristen Neff, one of the leading researchers on the subject, there are three core elements to self-compassion: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness. Many mistakenly avoid self-compassion, believing that it means being easy on yourself and will lead to being complacent. But self-compassion in fact is the foundation for resilience and helps you develop the courage to face hard facts. In taking a constructive — rather than critical or harsh — attitude toward your efforts as a leader, you build your capacity to navigate challenges and unpredictability.
Self-Compassion Makes You a Better Leader
The amount of research on self-compassion has grown significantly over the past fifteen years, and studies show that the benefits align with several important leadership skills.
Emotional Intelligence: Studies indicate that people who exercise self-compassion have higher levels of emotional intelligence, are better able to maintain calm when flustered, and tend to experience more happiness and optimism.
Resilience: Kristin Neff’s research and that of others shows that self-compassionate people have standards as high as people who lack self-compassion, but that those with high self-compassion are less likely to be unduly and unproductively hard on themselves if they didn’t meet their own standards. Self-compassion supports you as you navigate setbacks, regain clarity, and move forward productively.
Growth Mindset: Studies from Neff and colleagues indicate that highly self-compassionate people are more oriented toward personal growth. Rather than avoid challenges, they are more likely to formulate specific plans to reach their goals.
Integrity: Research shows a strong link between self-compassion and conscientiousness and accountability, suggesting that self-compassion enables leaders to act responsibly and morally, even when undertaking difficult decisions.
Compassion Toward Others: As the UC-Berkeley professor of psychology Serena Chen writes, “Self-compassion and compassion for others are linked… Being kind and nonjudgmental toward the self is good practice for treating others compassionately.” Leaders who are able to model compassion for themselves and others build trust and psychological safety that leads to higher engagement and sustainable high performance in teams and organizations.
How to Build Your Capacity for Self-Compassion
Embracing the benefits of self-compassion is the first step. Then the question is how to foster it. Here is a set of core practices to get you started.
Practice in the Moment
The easiest place to start is with a five- to 20-second exercise that can be integrated into your day: when starting a meeting, as you sit down at your desk or kitchen table, or even while pausing between responding to emails.
To practice self-compassion during these moments, take three deep breaths and with each breath, think three subsequent thoughts, each connected to one of the core elements of self-compassion:
Mindfulness: “This is hard right now” or “I’m feeling tense.” By being aware of, but not overwhelmed by, your own emotions you’re able to make decisions with more clarity and wisdom.
Common humanity: “I’m not alone; other leaders are facing similar challenges.” Recognizing that you’re not alone supports your well-being and your sense of connection with others, helping you consider the people potentially impacted by your actions.
Self-kindness: “May I be kind to myself as I face this challenge” or “What would be kind right now?” Treating yourself well is essential for your own motivation and your capacity to help others.
This short practice can be done quickly and unobtrusively, without anyone else even knowing.
Rewire Your Brain
In addition to short, in-the-moment practices, we recommend building your capacity with slightly longer practices as well. Spending somewhere between five and 10 minutes each day meditating on self-compassion will make a big difference. As we know from research on neuroplasticity, what we think and pay attention to changes the structures and functions of our brain to make these habits easier. By dedicating time regularly to build the capacity for self-compassion, we’re training the brain to incline towards self-kindness, making it an easier and more habitual response when things are tough.
You can make a guided meditation (you might try this nine-minute one) part of your morning routine or integrate it into a lunch break or the end of your work day. If you notice there are moments throughout the day when you’re beating yourself up, you can try a shorter meditation as well (here’s an example of a five-minute practice).
Shift Your Mindset
You can shift your mindset about a setback or challenge and orient it toward self-compassion through writing. Students in a comparison study who actively exercised self-compassion through writing exercises reported a greater motivation to change, a greater desire to address weaknesses, and exhibited higher effort to improve overall. These results were significantly better compared to both a standard control group and a group that did a similar writing exercise focused on self-esteem (rather than self-compassion).
Try out this writing exercise to similarly shift your mindset. Draft an encouraging letter to yourself from your inner compassionate voice, answering the following questions: What would your inner mentor say about the challenges you’re facing? What might they suggest and how would they encourage you? What would you tell a friend who is struggling with a similar situation?
We recommend that you start writing and keep your pen (or typing fingers) moving for about four to five minutes. Once you’ve written out your letter, take a moment to read over it and notice if you feel a greater sense of openness toward your challenges. You might also revisit it a few days or weeks in the future, and can even set up an email with delayed send to bring your encouraging words back when you might need them in the future.
As we face a world that’s more uncertain than ever, we need leaders who look for common humanity with their employees, customers, and stakeholders. We need leaders who connect and uplift others, and this starts by exercising kindness towards yourself.
Source: Harvard Business Review