Self-compassion helps leaders — and their workers

October 5, 2021

When leaders actively practice compassion toward themselves, it benefits both them and their employees, according to a new paper co-authored by Ross School of Business Professor Sue Ashford.

“We tend to think of leadership as a universally good thing, so we don’t fully account for the hardships of leadership. We don’t think of self-compassion as something that’s particularly needed or important,” Ashford said in an interview.

“But without self-compassion, the hardships can lead you to think, ‘If I’m having such trouble with this role, am I really a leader at all?’ We found that self-compassion helps you to hold onto your identity as a leader.”

The researchers conducted an experiment in which leaders engaged in a brief self-compassion exercise on certain days. The leaders were asked to write up an experience in which they were understanding and patient toward themselves while facing a leadership challenge.

On days they did this exercise, the study found that the leaders identified more strongly with their leadership role. As a result, they offered more help to their employees — both with work tasks and personal problems — on those days than on days they did not do the exercise.

In addition, workers on those days perceived their leaders as more competent and more civil, making the exercise a win-win.
“Self-compassion helps you be more leader-like, which creates a more positive impression of you, but it also helps the people around you,” Ashford said. “So even if you do it out of self-interest, it’s going to have a positive impact on the people around you as well.”

Ashford noted that organizations or individuals could adopt the self-compassion exercise in their regular work life. Even if it’s not done in writing, similar benefits could come from a focused reflection during, say, the morning commute. Such an exercise might prove particularly beneficial to people new to leadership, who aren’t as comfortable with their role, she added.

“A lot of research suggests that we’re not very compassionate toward ourselves; that we’re pretty hard on ourselves,” Ashford said. “If you can shift how you see yourself to a more compassionate stance, many benefits occur. There are ways to build the idea into your life more fully, and that’s what I’d recommend.”

The paper — co-authored by Klodiana Lanaj and Remy E. Jennings of the University of Florida, and Satish Krishnan of the Indian Institute of Management Kozhikode — is forthcoming in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

Ashford is the Michael & Susan Jandernoa Professor of Management and Organizations at the University of Michigan.

This article was originally published as a Ross News Blog post.