How self-compassion can help staff thrive

When leaders are authentic, vulnerable, kind and compassionate, it can create a workspace where people feel safe, say Karen Liebenguth and Andrew McNeill

When leaders show up and are authentic, vulnerable, kind and compassionate, others feel they can do the same. It creates a brave space in which people feel safe and can thrive. However, in the world of leadership it can be thought that vulnerability can undermine performance, productivity and competition; yet with vulnerability comes human connection. 

Brené Brown, a research professor and author who studies human connection, said: “We are hardwired to connect with others, it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives.” Her TED talk in 2010, The power of vulnerability has been viewed by more than 55 million people. 

Does this statistic tell us that Brown is saying something we as leaders need to listen to? When we share a personal experience or a story about ourselves, we make ourselves vulnerable because personal stories often reveal a flaw, a difficulty, a mistake or an obstacle that was challenging to overcome. 

Many leaders and staff are nervous about sharing their personal experiences, to reveal their struggles at their place of work for fear it will open them up to judgement or criticism. However, people are drawn to the transformative power of vulnerability because it taps into our common humanity. Sharing personal experience inspires others to do the same, helps colleagues to connect and be compassionate to self and others. 

Holding up our armour, guarding ourselves against others, and showing how tough and independent we are, can lead to a sense of alienation, isolation and loneliness. This is particularly prevalent in leaders. 

Emma Seppala, associate director of the Centre for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University said: “A new field of research is suggesting that when organisations promote an ethic of compassion rather than a culture of stress, they may not only see a happier workplace (e.g. a lack of bonding within the workplace has been shown to increase psychological distress and positive social interactions at work have been shown to boost employee health), but also an improved bottom line.”

We often think – and leaders in particular – that being kind and compassionate is weak and self-indulgent, that being hard on oneself is the way to go, that being self-critical keeps us up to the mark, makes us respected and powerful, stops us from being lazy and selfish. Quite the opposite is true. 

Kristin Neff PhD, leading American researcher in the field of self-compassion, shows in her studies that people who practice self-compassion vs self-criticism are more emotionally robust and resilient because they are able to:

  • Have a positive, kind, compassionate attitude towards themselves;

  • Acknowledge their mistakes and imperfections because they don’t get caught up in a negative spiral of self-criticism and self-denigration;

  • Learn from their mistakes, change and move on.

Cultivating an attitude of self-compassion has three crucial ingredients.

  1. Kindness doesn’t mean being nice all the time. It’s non-sentimental. An attitude of kindness means a quality of openness, friendliness, curiosity, care, warmth and love.

    It’s closely linked to empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. It is often immensely challenging and is not for the fainthearted. We don’t need to fabricate kindness. It’s already present, intrinsic in our human capacity. As leaders, kindness can enable us to care for ourselves and to see and hear our staff, team members, colleagues and clients or customers fully.

  2. Compassion arises when we have the courage to willingly engage with our pain, difficulty, suffering and that of others.

    As leaders, compassion enables us to be alongside our own and our colleagues’ experience including their suffering with openness, kindness and curiosity without needing to fix or solve anything. 

  3. Awareness helps us to be authentic. It allows us to know and acknowledge what’s really going on inside us and around us and to ask what’s really needed right now.

    To do so we need to slow down, pause and ask: ‘How am I feeling right now?’. And to share it as well as to genuinely ask your staff and team members: ‘How are you doing, how have you been?’ and to give time and space to listen with curiosity and interest. 

Self-compassion is a quality, an attitude that’s already there within us and that we can develop further through regular practice. It’s training the mind and heart in a similar way that physical exercise is training for the body.

There are two types of practices we can do. The first one is called behavioural self-compassion. In a moment of difficulty, shame, fear, anger or frustration we consciously choose to do something that can help us to calm the mind, to ground ourselves. For example:

  • Pausing: taking three deep breaths – you can do this anywhere: at your desk, in a meeting, while having a one-to-one with someone.

  • Talking to a trusted peer leader, colleague or friend.

  • Making a cup of tea or stepping to the window and looking at the trees, sky or clouds. This creates space in which we can allow our experience to flow through us with kindness and compassion. 

  • Going for a short walk around the block or in a nearby green space.

The second is a four-stage mindful meditation practice that engages the heart and mind. It involves sitting quietly while connecting to the body and breath, to our direct present-moment experience. It can be done in one minute, three, ten minutes or longer.

  • Stage 1: This is a moment of difficulty
    “This is scary, this is painful, this is stressful, this is frustrating …” Notice where you feel it in the body.

  • Stage 2: Difficult experience is part of life
    It’s common humanity, others feel this way. “I’m not alone. We all struggle at times.”

  • Stage 3: Ask yourself
    “What do I need right now? Do I need to talk to someone, do I need a break, a moment to breathe…some reassurance…”?

  • Stage 4: Notice and absorb the effect of this practice
    How are you feeling now?

It takes only one person to let down their guard, to be human and humble, to speak from their experience to create a space in which people feel safe and consequently thrive. 

Karen Liebenguth is an executive coach and mindful trainer and Andrew McNeill is a leadership consultant and mindfulness trainer. Liebenguth and McNeill are co-founders of Parcival