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Leadership Today - Practical Tips For Leaders

Jul 17, 2020


When things inevitably go wrong, it’s far better to treat yourself like your best friend rather than your worst critic. A little self-compassion goes a long way.



Hello and welcome to episode 86 of the Leadership Today podcast where each week we tackle one of today’s biggest leadership challenges. This week we look at the importance of self-compassion when we’re faced with setbacks and disappointments.

It was early in my career and it had been a crazy week. We had a client event coming up and needed to get physical invitations out to people as soon as possible. I put my hand up to organise the invitations and get them out the door the same day. After some quick design work and a proof read by a colleague, the invitations were on their way to clients. As the team sat together on the Friday morning that same week, a few printed invites were handed around. I received a few congratulations for having the invitations out so quickly. It was at that point that one of the Directors said “we have a problem here”. I thought he was joking, but the look on his face said otherwise. It turned out that in my haste I had put the wrong street name on the invitation, automatically inserting the street from my previous workplace. At that point, the person who had proof read the invitation and given it the all clear helpfully pointed out that they hadn’t proof read the invitations “for the details”. I was well and truly thrown under the bus. Over 20 years later I can still remember the feeling of embarrassment, disappointment and frustration.

We’ve all had moments like that when we feel like we’ve let others down. They can really play havoc on our well-being and productivity. So how do we best respond in those moments? Research demonstrates that a little self-compassion goes a long way.

Researcher Zessin and colleagues describe self-compassion as “a positive and caring attitude of a person toward her- or himself in the face of failures and individual shortcomings”. Self-compassion is about remaining positive about ourselves, and also treating ourselves in a kind way. Their analysis, combining 79 research papers, found that self-compassion is crucial for well-being. That if we are positive and caring towards ourselves, we are going to be far better off when things inevitably go wrong. We can then maintain our composure and be able to perform more effectively.

Research demonstrates that, when we mess things up, it’s natural to experience negative emotions, reduced self-esteem, and even to feel excluded from the group. Self-compassion appears to buffer individuals from these adverse impacts, helping people to experience fewer negative emotions while still feeling a part of the group that they let down.

Other research shows that those with greater self-compassion feel less stressed when they end up procrastinating. So even if it is just ourselves that we’re letting down, having self-compassion can help a lot.

I was eventually able to see my invitation error as a mistake that anyone could have made, and to draw out learnings from the situation. But it took weeks, not moments, to get to that point. So how do we move to acceptance faster? How do we boost our self-compassion?

To answer those questions, it’s helpful to explore the different elements of self-compassion that researchers focus on. Self-compassion is often divided into three components: self-kindness, mindfulness and common humanity. Each provides an insight into how to build our levels of self-compassion:

  1. Self-kindness - here we acknowledge the pain, but are then kind to ourselves. A helpful approach can be to consider how you would respond to a friend in the same situation. We’re often far more compassionate to others than to ourselves. Taking the perspective of a considerate friend can provide a useful vantage point to put our failures into perspective.

  2. Mindfulness - this is about being aware of our emotions and keeping them balanced. When things go wrong it’s normal to experience negative emotions, but it’s important to not let ourselves tip into exclusively negative territory. It can be helpful to focus on what we have learned through the situation. We also want to challenge our negative self-talk. Journalling is an approach that can help. The act of writing out the details of the situation and how we are thinking and feeling about events can make it easier to challenge the negative response we might be experiencing.

  3. Common humanity - here we are recognising that everyone experiences challenges and set backs. Part of our common humanity is a tendency to get things wrong. Mistakes and growth can go hand in hand if we allow them to. I’ve found that if things are hard then I’m probably learning something - I’m sure that’s true for you too.

So how are you when it comes to self-compassion? It’s far better to act like your best friend rather than your worst critic. Allow yourself to experience the pain and take responsibility when you do mess up, but be kind to yourself so you can move forward.

Well, would you believe it has been two years since I launched the Leadership Today podcast. In that time we’ve had 86 main episodes and 13 Midweek Motivate episodes - 99 in total. Over that time we’ve cracked it onto the management podcast charts in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, France, Great Britain, New Zealand, Singapore, Uganda and the United States. All of this was to help thousands of leaders to achieve results through people for good. I’m really thankful for the people I’ve met along the way, and look forward to extending into our third year. And, as is apparently mandatory at the end of all podcasts, if Leadership Today has been helpful to you, a great way to say thanks is with a rating and review, or just sharing the podcast with a friend. Have a great week.



Zessin, U., Dickhäuser, O., & Garbade, S. (2015). The relationship between self‐compassion and well‐being: A meta‐analysis. Applied Psychology: Health and Well‐Being7(3), 340-364.

James H. Wirth, Ashley Batts Allen and Emily M. Zitek Self-Compassion Buffers Against the Negative Effects of a Poor Performance. Social Psychology, May 2020.

Sirois, F. M. (2014). Procrastination and stress: Exploring the role of self-compassion. Self and Identity13(2), 128-145.