When we experience a setback at work, we tend to either become defensive and blame others, or beraate ourselves. Neither response is helpful. Shirking responsibility by getting defensive may alleviate the sting of failure, but it comes at the expense of learning. Self-flagellation, on the other hand, may feel warranted in the moment, but it can lead to an inaccurately gloomy assessment of one’s potential, which undermines personal development.
Research shows that we should respond instead with self-compassion. People who do this tend to demonstrate three behaviors: First, they are kind rather than judgmental about their own failures and mistakes; second, they recognize that failures are a shared human experience; and third, they take a balanced approach to negative emotions when they stumble or fall short—they allow themselves to feel bad, but they don’t let negative emotions take over.
Self-compassion boosts performance by triggering the “growth mindset”—the belief that improvement is achievable through dedication and hard work. It also helps us connect with a more authentic self.
When people experience a setback at work—whether it’s a bad sales quarter, being overlooked for a promotion, or an interpersonal conflict with a colleague—it’s common to respond in one of two ways. Either we become defensive and blame others, or we berate ourselves. Unfortunately, neither response is especially helpful. Shirking responsibility by getting defensive may alleviate the sting of failure, but it comes at the expense of learning. Self-flagellation, on the other hand, may feel warranted in the moment, but it can lead to an inaccurately gloomy assessment of one’s potential, which undermines personal development.
What if instead we were to treat ourselves as we would a friend in a similar situation? More likely than not, we’d be kind, understanding, and encouraging. Directing that type of response internally, toward ourselves, is known as self-compassion, and it’s been the focus of a good deal of research in recent years. Psychologists are discovering that self-compassion is a useful tool for enhancing performance in a variety of settings, from healthy aging to athletics. I and other researchers have begun focusing on how self-compassion also enhances professional growth.
For nonacademics, self-compassion is a less familiar concept than self-esteem or self-confidence. Although it’s true that people who engage in self-compassion tend to have higher self-esteem, the two concepts are distinct. Self-esteem tends to involve evaluating oneself in comparison with others. Self-compassion, on the other hand, doesn’t involve judging the self or others. Instead, it creates a sense of self-worth because it leads people to genuinely care about their own well-being and recovery after a setback.
People with high levels of self-compassion demonstrate three behaviors: First, they are kind rather than judgmental about their own failures and mistakes; second, they recognize that failures are a shared human experience; and third, they take a balanced approach to negative emotions when they stumble or fall short—they allow themselves to feel bad, but they don’t let negative emotions take over.
Kristin Neff, a professor at the University of Texas, Austin, has developed a survey tool that assesses the three components of self-compassion. Researchers and practitioners have used the tool to shed light on what personality traits and behaviors are associated with self-compassion and have found, among other things, that people who score high typically have greater motivation to improve themselves and are more likely to report strong feelings of authenticity—the sense of being true to the self. Both are important contributors to a successful career. The good news is that both of these traits can be cultivated and enhanced through self-compassion.
A Growth Mindset
Most organizations and people want to improve—and self-compassion is crucial for that. We tend to associate personal growth with determination, persistence, and hard work, but the process often starts with reflection. One of the key requirements for self-improvement is having a realistic assessment of where we stand—of our strengths and our limitations. Convincing ourselves that we are better than we are leads to complacency, and thinking we’re worse than we are leads to defeatism. When people treat themselves with compassion, they are better able to arrive at realistic self-appraisals, which is the foundation for improvement. They are also more motivated to work on their weaknesses rather than think “What’s the point?” and to summon the grit required to enhance skills and change bad habits.
Self-compassion triggers people to adopt a growth mindset.
My colleagues Juliana Breines (at the University of Rhode Island) and Jia Wei Zhang (at the University of Memphis) and I demonstrated this in a series of studies in which participants were nudged to treat themselves either with self-compassion or in a self-esteem-boosting manner. Then we assessed their desire for self-improvement. In one study, we asked participants to recall a time when they did something they felt was wrong and as a result experienced guilt, remorse, and regret. The majority of participants’ transgressions involved romantic infidelity, academic misconduct, dishonesty, betrayal of trust, or hurting someone they cared about. We then randomly assigned them to one of three conditions: self-compassion, self-esteem, or a control group. The self-compassion participants were asked to write a paragraph to themselves expressing kindness and understanding regarding the transgression. The self-esteem people were asked to write a paragraph describing their positive qualities. Participants in the control group were asked to write about a hobby they enjoyed. All participants then filled out a questionnaire assessing their desire to make amends and their commitment not to repeat the transgression in the future. We found that those who were encouraged to treat themselves with compassion reported being more motivated to make amends and to never repeat the transgression than participants who were encouraged to respond to the transgression in a self-esteem-boosting manner and those in the control group. In other research, we found that self-compassion increased the resolve of people who said they had been responsible for a romantic breakup to be better partners in future relationships, compared with participants in the other two conditions.
Self-compassion does more than help people recover from failure or setbacks. It also supports what Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford University, has called a “growth mindset.” Dweck has documented the benefits of adopting a growth rather than “fixed” approach to performance, whether it be in launching a successful start-up, parenting, or running a marathon. People with a fixed mindset see personality traits and abilities, including their own, as set in stone. They believe that who we are today is essentially who we’ll be five years from now. People who have a growth mindset, in contrast, view personality traits and abilities as malleable. They see the potential for growth and thus are more likely to try to improve—to put in effort and practice and to stay positive and optimistic.
My research suggests that self-compassion triggers people to adopt a growth mindset. In one study I conducted with Juliana Breines, participants were asked to identify what they considered to be their biggest weakness—most involved social difficulties such as lack of confidence, anxiety, shyness, and insecurity in relationships—after which they were randomly assigned to one of three groups. Participants in the self-compassion group were asked to write a response to this prompt: “Imagine that you are talking to yourself about this weakness from a compassionate and understanding perspective. What would you say?” People in the self-esteem group were asked to write in response to: “Imagine that you are talking to yourself about this weakness from a perspective of validating your positive (rather than negative) qualities.” The final group was not asked to write anything.
Next, participants completed a set of measures about whether they felt content, sad, or upset and then were asked to spend five minutes describing whether they’ve ever done anything to change their weakness and where they thought their weakness came from. Independent coders rated participants’ responses based on the degree to which they conveyed a growth or a fixed mindset (“It’s just inborn—there’s nothing I can do” versus “With hard work I know I can change”). Participants in the self-compassion condition expressed significantly more thoughts associated with a growth mindset than participants in the other two conditions.
But what about actual behavior? How do we know that self-compassion—and the resulting growth mindset—will lead people to work harder to improve themselves? According to the scientific literature on fixed and growth mindsets, one of the most compelling signs that a person has a growth mindset is his or her willingness to keep trying to do better after receiving negative feedback. After all, if you believe your abilities are fixed, there’s no point in making the effort. But if you view abilities as changeable, getting negative feedback shouldn’t deter you in trying to improve.