What makes us listen, respect and show loyalty? Despite the prolific images of bosses who are stern, commanding, forceful and sometimes brutal, one of the most powerful leadership tools has little to do with how much others fear you. In reality, we trust leaders who consistently demonstrate reliability, honesty, accountability and fairness. Moreover, leaders who cultivate authentic self-compassion gain more respect and loyalty than those who use threats, fear or shame.
Self-Compassion is a Requirement for Accountability
Brené Brown, leading sociological researcher and author of New York Times best-seller, The Gifts of Imperfection, explains that “compassion is derived from the Latin words pati and cum, meaning ‘to suffer with.'” Compassion means identifying, empathizing and feeling connected. And this self-awareness is what leads us to accountability. Brown clarifies that “if we really want to practice compassion, we have to start by setting boundaries and holding people accountable for their behavior.” Self-compassion is not, despite prevalent stereotypes and myths, a form of self-indulgence, self-pity or irresponsibility. In fact, it’s the key practice of leaders who regularly hold themselves and others accountable.
Admitting our shortcomings and flaws is simply honest, not weak or delusional. And when we acknowledge our human imperfections, we’re less likely to feel shame and more likely to take responsibility for our mistakes. Not only that, we will be better at holding others accountable. In another best-seller, Rising Strong, Brown elaborates, “the most compassionate people I interviewed also have the most well-defined and well-respected boundaries. Compassionate people ask for what they need. They say no when they need to, and when they say yes, they mean it. They’re compassionate because their boundaries keep them out of resentment.” Leadership produces results through communication and follow-through–always honest, upfront and firm.
Accountability is Not Blame or Shame
Too often, we’re taught that mistakes must be blamed on someone, and the guilty party deserves a helping of shame so the mistake never happens again. How often have teachers, parents and supervisors harshly chided or ridiculed, thinking it would make us change? If you’ve ever experienced having your work, grades, salary or job rating publicly displayed in the name of competition, you’ve experienced shame as a mistaken form of motivation. Brown sums it up, “We live in a blame culture… we do a lot of screaming and finger-pointing, but we rarely hold people accountable.”
If we want our teams to strive and take risks, we can’t shame them–not for honest mistakes or outright failures. Simply demanding or coercing behaviors only serves to erodes trust, cooperation and respect. Real accountability is more time-consuming and difficult than a quick hit of blame and shame. Setting, communicating and following through with consequences, even if they make everyone uncomfortable, takes strategic effort and attention. Brown assures us that “we can confront someone about their behavior, or fire someone… without berating them or putting them down. The key is to separate people from their behaviors–to address what they’re doing, not who they are.”
Keys to Practicing Self-Compassion
Brown gives us two key practices. First, assume we are all doing our best. Avoid the trap of assuming ulterior motives. When mistakes happen, remember your own humanity while holding everyone accountable. And second, let go of perfectionism, which is “not the same thing as striving to be your best.” According to Brown, perfectionism is about appearing perfect “so we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, or shame.” Compassionate accountability must be realistic.
Another good place to start is with Kristin Neff, PhD, who created the Self-Compassion Scale to rate six self-compassion behaviors. Completing the scale can show you where you excel and where you may need to work on your self-compassion.
Leadership and management are ongoing practices we cultivate, beginning with ourselves, then extending to those who trust us.