Leading with Empathy: 5 Tips to Foster Self-Compassion

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Jun 10, 2020

HR leaders should not overlook the importance of self-compassion as a strategy to promote their people’s resilience and increase business performance. Leading with empathy means tuning into one’s own self-talk track and assessing how well it is helping or hindering effectiveness during unprecedented uncertainty. Too often, the idea of engaging emotions and applying self-compassion, especially in the workplace, is seen as soft and at odds with an achievement mindset. However, compassion, or “a sensitivity to the suffering of self and others, with a commitment to try to relieve it,” takes courage and requires a dedicated commitment to behave differently.

Dr. Kristin Neff, a pioneer in modern self-compassion practice, says it is composed of three elements:

  • Self-kindness: Being understanding toward ourselves when we fail or feel inadequate.
  • Common humanity: Recognizing that all humans suffer and being “human” means that one is mortal, vulnerable, and imperfect.
  • Mindfulness: A non-judgmental, receptive state of mind in which one observes thoughts and feelings as they are, without trying to suppress or deny them.

My organization’s research into leadership resilience shows that many highly empathic leaders spend time caring about others but forget to look after themselves. This behavior is especially pronounced during the COVID-19 crisis. HR leaders are investing in supporting their teams, making time for virtual coffees or check-ins, walking the virtual floor to ensure they remain visible and connected. Many are finding work a relentless barrage of virtual calls, with days seeping into evenings and boundaries between work and personal blurring. HR leaders are feeling exhausted and lack the headspace to create clarity of focus and purpose for their people.

Self-compassion is difficult. Humans are inclined to think beating themselves up is a positive motivation strategy. We think self-criticism will inspire action; however, research suggests the opposite is true. Self-criticism makes us feel depressed, anxious, and demotivated. To be clear, there is a critical difference between helpful self-observation, self-analysis, and self-evaluation. All of those are effective at motivating, holding people accountable, and helping maintain standards, whereas self-attacking language and behaviors undermine and damage. Studies have found self-compassionate people are more likely to see their weaknesses and mistakes as changeable, and they are more likely to work to improve them and avoid making similar mistakes in the future.

Fostering self-compassion

Here are five practical suggestions for HR leaders to build more self-compassionate mindsets and model self-compassion for their people.

  1. Accept that failure is part of life and essential to the learning process. It is human nature to try to ameliorate discomfort by self-criticizing or moving quickly to resolve an issue. But allowing ourselves to sit with an issue and understand our own pain without judging will help us learn how to bounce back much faster. In a moment of failure, simply notice what happens to your heartbeat, your breathing, your inner voice; acknowledge that feeling, recognize its power, and move on. It does not define you any more than success defines you.
  2. Stop trying to control feelings. Emotions are not shameful. People do not choose to feel anxious, worried, or angry. Emotions keep us out of harm’s way but can sometimes fire off too quickly and for too long. Mindfully noticing how we feel and accepting that it is okay to feel that way, often results in feeling calmer. When people self-reflect with contempt and anger, make broad judgments, blame themselves, and assume mistakes will be permanent, they are unable to develop encouragement for themselves and truly learn.
  3. Challenge the inner critic. Too many falsely believe self-criticism is useful (i.e., it is motivating, prevents complacency, keeps us on your toes, etc.). In reality, it is demotivating and can make us afraid to step out of our comfort zones. Is your inner critic offering constructive advice, or just holding you back?
  4. Practice forgiveness. When things go wrong, self-compassionate people are more likely to see their weaknesses and mistakes as changeable and are thus more likely to work to improve them. Rather than berating yourself for mistakes or shortcomings, focus on the small, positive changes you can make. Grant yourself grace; it is not reasonable to expect you will be as productive as you were pre-COVID-19.
  5. Treat yourself as you would treat a friend. Mistakes are inevitable; when they happen, take a few deep breaths. Ask, “What would I say to a friend/spouse/ child if they were feeling this way?” People tend to be harder on themselves than on other people.

The next time things go wrong, or you are feeling overwhelmed by the uncertainty surrounding the crisis, recognize that others likely are feeling similarly. Stop, acknowledge your feelings, and try a little tenderness. When HR leaders practice self-compassion and model it for their people, they are giving permission to others to do the same. Leading with empathy means extending concern for and care about others to everyone, including one’s self. Fostering self-compassionate mindsets will help your people feel that they are thriving, not just surviving, and help them become happier and more effective in the long-term.