Should Your Employees Toughen up or Soften Up?

Do you need your employees to toughen up?   Let’s face it with the increasing rate of change and growing levels of complexity in most workplaces, it’s no wonder stress rates continue to climb in organizations around the world. But given studies suggest that most of us are wired to be naturally resilient, might your organizational dollars and leadership efforts be better spent on helping your people to soften up instead?

“Opening yourself up to self-compassion can help you cope better with life’s challenges,” explained Dr. Kristin Neff, from the University of Texas, and one of the world’s leading researchers on self-compassion when I interviewed her recently.  “By reminding yourself that you’re capable and worthy in moments of stress, our studies suggest that you’ll have greater overall levels of resilience and wellbeing.”

Whilst culturally we’re often taught that self-criticism rather than self-compassion is what’s required to improve our motivation and grit, studies have found that going into self-attack mode triggers our brain’s self-punishment and self-inhibition systems making us more self-absorbed, more anxious, depressed, stressed, and unable to see things clearly.  Self-compassion on the other hand helps to trigger our brain’s self-awareness and care-giving systems helping us to believe that we are capable and worthy, making us less self-conscious, less likely to compare ourselves to others and more resilient.

“Self-compassion entails three core components: self-kindness rather than criticism and judgment; recognition of our common humanity and rather than feeling isolated or alienated by our suffering; and the mindfulness to hold your experience in balanced awareness, rather than ignoring your pain or exaggerating it,” explained Kristin.

She suggests that we think of self-compassion as a wise and kind inner coach who believes in you, has your back when things get tough, and gently but firmly keeps pushing you towards what you’re truly capable of achieving.   It doesn’t mean that you aren’t critical of your own efforts, but that the criticism is always constructive and designed to fuel your growth mindset.

Kristin suggests three techniques anyone can use to practice more self-compassion at work:

  • Nurture your inner coach – when you hear your inner critic talking, stop and ask yourself: “How’s my inner critic trying to help me, and keep me safe in this situation?”  Then once you’ve acknowledged what it’s trying to do, you can be open to nurturing a more supportive inner coach that has the same goal, but can motivate you more by being encouraging and compassionate.  Consider what a supportive coach or a kind and wise mentor would say to you when you face challenges, fall short or get things wrong.
  • Supportive touch – giving yourself a soothing gentle touch can activate the reward areas of your brain, and trigger feelings of comfort, safety and being cared for. If you’re somewhere private try putting your hands on your heart or giving yourself a hug.  When you need to cope with difficult situations in your workplace try something less obvious – holding your hand or squeezing your fingers while telling yourself reassuring messages such as “Hey, I’m here for you,” and “It’s okay, I’ve got your back.”
  • Tone of voice – not only what you say, but also how you say it has been found to be important for showing self-compassion.  Using a warm and gentle, rather than a cold or harsh, tone of voice can make a huge difference in your ability to support yourself in moments of struggle.

Kristin suggests that by giving people the permission and skills to nurture their own inner coach, Kristen suggests that not only will they be less likely to burn out, but by showing themselves care and compassion, they’ll also have more resources available to help others in the workplace.

So how can you encourage your employees to find their inner coach to become more resilient at work?