Unless you have a fear of flying and have never dared set foot on an aircraft, you will be familiar with the safety briefing that instructs passengers, in an emergency, to ensure they attach their own oxygen mask before tending to others. The rationale being that you will be of little use to anyone else if you are slumped unconscious from a lack of oxygen.
A similar analogy can be applied to compassion and leadership. As a species, we are quick to judge – a hang-up from our hunter-gatherer days, when we had to make life or death decisions in an instant – and the person we tend to judge the harshest is often ourselves.
The problem is, we make mistakes, whether we like to admit them or not. Unlike most mortals, however, a leader’s mistakes can have far reaching consequences. It may therefore be tempting to be exceptionally self-critical when things do go wrong or when we don’t meet the exceptionally high standards we have set for ourselves.
According to a growing body of research, being self-critical may not be the right approach.
Whilst it may sound counterintuitive, being compassionate towards yourself could help bolster resilience and result in increased motivation to achieve your goals.
Self-compassion may appear a bit fluffy and hippy on the surface, but at its heart lies some sound science. Firstly, there is the impact of our emotions on our health. Nelson Mandela was profoundly accurate when he suggested that:
“Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies”
In the case of self-criticism, you are your own worst enemy. Anger, stress, resentment and other negative emotions, mediated by the brain’s amygdala, have one thing in common in that they tend to signal the release of cortisol.
Whilst I am not one to stigmatise a molecule (cortisol has many important functions in the body), we do know that chronic exposure to high levels of cortisol can have a negative impact on health. For example, it can increase the risk of a heart attack or stroke, like a poison coursing through your veins.
The effective trigger of our fight or flight response inhibits clear, reasoned and rational thinking. Many of us fail to appreciate that the thoughts we have are directly linked to the types of chemicals that are produced throughout the brain and the body.
When we are stuck in a negative thought loop, berating ourselves for mistakes or failures (or angrily pointing the finger of blame elsewhere), we are repeatedly triggering the same emotions (i.e. chemicals).
We know that some of those chemicals can be harmful to health and can lead to mental ill-health and burn-out.
All the time you are caught in a negative thought loop, berating yourself for something gone wrong, you are not focussed on identifying a solution.
You are also continuously triggering the release of unhelpful chemicals that further impede your ability to problem solve and can lead to serious long-term health consequences.
Chronic exposure to high levels of cortisol can have a negative impact on health.
Part of being human involves recognising that all humans (including you) are imperfect, fail and make mistakes.
Self-compassion enables you to be forgiving towards yourself for those mistakes. This helps calm the amygdala by letting it know that the ‘threat’ has passed. Needless to say that we produce a whole raft of different chemicals as a result.
One of those chemicals is oxytocin, a known cortisol-reducing agent, which promotes feelings of trust and self-soothing.
Our society has conditioned us to believe that failure should be punished.
If we don’t feel bad about it or make someone else feel bad about it, we are made to believe that our standards will slip and that greater transgressions will occur in the future. However, research published in 2012 suggests the exact opposite to be true.
Compared to a control group, those who approached failures with self-compassion reported greater motivation to make amends and avoid repeating the same mistakes. These included spending more time studying for a difficult test following an initial failure, as well as reporting greater motivation to change a perceived weakness.
Self-compassion may appear a bit fluffy and hippy on the surface, but at its heart lies some sound science.
Logically, it makes sense; we are less likely to try something again if we fear the repercussions. A sure-fire way to kill your own creativity and that of your team and organisation is to punish those who dare to try.
The lightbulb wasn’t invented on the first attempt, but countless ‘failures’. Next time you make a mistake or don’t live up to your high expectations, maybe think about giving yourself a break and focus on learning from your mistakes instead.
Of course, once you have put your own oxygen mask firmly around your mouth and are able to breathe, a leader’s job is just getting started. Compassionate leadership extends beyond yourself and begins with listening in a non-judgemental way – no matter how hard that may seem at first.
Three tips for self-compassion:
- Be mindful of the emotions you are experiencing, especially when those emotions are self-critical. Try to break out of any negative thought loops you find yourself in.
- Ask yourself what you might say to a friend or colleague in a similar situation.
- Seek out others to get perspective.