Self-compassionate leadership

1) Self-compassionate leadership and strengths at work

In our group workshops, we explore research about people’s attitudes toward their strengths. Seventy percent find it hard to articulate where their strengths lie clearly. This, combined with our caveman brain negativity bias to dwell on negative feedback and remember peak negative experiences, can undermine our levels of wellbeing and confidence.

Negativity bias might come from several sources, including the need for self-preservation and the need to fit in with our tribe. It’s an evolutionary response that makes us vigilant for threats and social evidence that our peers accept or reject us. This means we pay more attention to subtle cues in interactions, dwell on critical feedback, and pay less attention to feedback on our successes.

2) But what about overconfidence?

Many of our clients are noting the exact opposite from some of their reports – new team members who may be closed off to feedback or unwilling to listen to the wisdom that comes from years in a role.

Most of us have a messy combination of overconfidence and negativity bias—it’s the human condition. The longer we spend in a role, the more experienced we become. We learn technical and procedural knowledge and build social capital. 

However, what increases even more than our abilities is the confidence that we have in our decision-making and abilities. As time passes, we become more confident that our abilities are greater than our peers and that our decisions are correct. Daniel Kahneman explores this in his book, “Noise – a flaw in human judgement”. I’ll share more information about this book in future modules. And emotional intelligence expert Kristin Ferguson notes, “Leadership is no friend of humility”!

3) People are messy – leading in this environment requires mental agility and dropping judgment

What we may experience in our one-to-one catch-ups with our teammates might be messily articulated as:

Messy point number one: young folks straight out of university with many bright ideas but perhaps sometimes unwilling to listen to experience. Conversely, research points to those same young people craving feedback—they want to learn and grow. Other research indicates that young people in the workforce are sensitive, reflective, and sometimes fragile—appearing tough and confident but needing reassurance.

Messy point number two: leaders with vast experience and so much value to add sometimes feel unlistened to, threatened by new talent coming through, and pondering what’s next. Where does my career go from here? Is this where I wanted my career to be at this stage in life?

Messy point number three: leaders who have so much to do and so little time with multiple competing priorities, including their own career development, caring for their family, developing their team, and actually doing their jobs, feel like they are constantly dropping the ball—holding themselves to impossible-to-achieve standards. 

4) How does strengths awareness fit in?

Research from strengths organisations (such as Gallup in the US and Cappfinity in the UK) points to greater strength awareness as a vital skill for people at all levels in an organisation.

Maintaining a balanced perspective of successes and strengths and setbacks and weaknesses enables people to maintain a solutions-focused, growth mindset. Focussing on strengths isn’t “happyology” – it’s the exact opposite. Maintaining some awareness of successes enables people to build greater self-awareness:

  • Practising strengths awareness goes hand in hand with being more open to critical feedback 
  • We become more accurate at identifying weaknesses and more open to sharing our weaknesses and challenges with teammates
  • We become humble in the face of “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns” – we become more agile in responding to uncertainty.
  • Getting into the habit of grounding ourselves in our strengths and values helps us lean into authentic conversations, display vulnerability and develop greater levels of self-compassion as a leader.

5) Exploring self-compassion

Watch this 6-minute video on self-compassion from Dr Kristen Neff, where she explains the three components of self-compassion – an intention to be kind to yourself, an ability to notice self-critical thoughts and common humanity (that we aren’t alone in our struggles).

In her research this last aspect is the most important one. When we feel alone at work and isolated, we believe that our challenges and setbacks are unique. That’s why, in a coaching or therapy session, simply talking about your feelings and thoughts helps lighten the load. Listening without judgment to your colleague’s worries and challenges creates a space for common humanity. 

The “coach-like leader” creates a safe space for teammates to open up and importantly role models vulnerability.

Neff also talks about noticing our suffering and being mindful of our suffering. In particular, she means noticing the self-critic, the internal voice which says, “We’ve stuffed up”, “We’re not good enough”, or “We will get found out”. And she talks about turning toward this self-critic with curiosity. In our mindfulness courses we often use the words COACH mindfulness – COACH standing for:

  • Curiosity
  • Openness
  • Acceptance
  • Compassion
  • Humility and or Humour

We are the product of a lifetime of conditioning (conditioned by culture, experiences, parents, and so on). As we observe our self-criticism, we are often left uncertain about why we think and feel in a certain way—this is normal. Life is complex, and our internal world is complex. Sometimes, we find it hard to understand our decision-making or the thoughts and feelings we experience. But observing our internal in a non-judgmental and openness is an important starting point for building greater self-compassion. 

Focussing on our achievements and strengths is an essential element of this.

She also talks about how we often rush to problem solving mode before accepting and validating our thoughts and feelings.

Watch this 12-minute video on self-compassion from Dr Kristen Neff, in which she explains the difference between self-compassion and self-care. Both are incredibly important, but they are different. Self-care is about refilling your energy reserves, while self-compassion stems from an intention to be self-kind and be a positive champion for yourself. 

She also explores the business case for self-compassion. Being self-compassionate is a combination of self-soothing but also proactive self-encouragement and kindly self-criticism . It’s akin to developing an inner supportive sports coach.

She also explores the misguided belief that we get the best out of ourselves through being hard on ourselves. Treat yourself as you would others through encouragement, positivity, goal-setting and celebrating your wins.

Share these insights with friends and colleagues