Re-Blog: Self-Compassion vs. Self-Esteem

Original Article:

Many of us were taught when we were young to think highly of ourselves, and to continuously think positive thoughts. Maybe that's not such a positive thing. In this article from Olga Khazan, Dr. Kristin Neff seeks to challenge the notion of self-esteem, and proposes a more pragmatic self-compassion idea. 


Why Self-Compassion Works Better Than Self-Esteem

Boosting your ego won’t make you feel better. Instead, try talking to yourself like you would your best friend.



In 1986, California state assemblyman John Vasconcellos came up with what he believed could be “a vaccine for major social ills” like teen pregnancy and drug abuse: a special task-force to promote self-esteem among Californians. The effort folded three years later, and was widely considered not to have accomplished much.

To Kristin Neff, a psychology professor at the University of Texas, that’s not surprising. Though self-esteem continues to reverberate as a pop-psych cure-all, the quest for inflated egos, in her view, is misguided and largely pointless.

There’s nothing wrong with being confident, to answer Demi Lovato’s question. The trouble is how we try to achieve high self-regard. Often, it’s by undermining others or comparing our achievements to those around us. That’s not just unsustainable, Neff argues, it can also lead to narcissism or depressive bouts during hard times.

Neff proposes a better path: Self-compassion. In other words, treating yourself just like you would your best friends, even when they (you) screw up.

I recently interviewed Neff about how self-esteem fails us and how we can boost our compassion for ourselves instead. An edited version of the conversation follows.

Olga Khazan: What are some contexts in which we usually hear about boosting self-esteem?

Kristin Neff: Well, it seems like it's just deeply permeated, especially American culture, where we have very high levels of self-esteem and narcissism. I think because of the big self-esteem movement, people just got it in their heads that the key to psychological health was self-esteem. Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell showed that because of this emphasis on self-esteem, we actually got a generation of narcissists. I think it’s generally out there in the culture, but maybe especially among parents and educators.

Jenny Crocker—she’s one of the best people who talks about this. She says, you have to stop the costly pursuit of high self-esteem. It's not having high self-esteem is the problem, it's pursuing it, which is usually based on feeling special and above-average or better than others. The best way to think about the problem of self-esteem is not whether or not you have it, but what you do to get it. That's where the issues really come in.

Khazan: So what's wrong with telling people to have better self-esteem?

Neff: When you take it too seriously, you become a narcissist. And we know narcissists tend to have problems with relationships, they push people away, so there are definitely maladaptive consequences to narcissism.

The other thing is, it's pretty common, at least in American society, that in order to have high self-esteem, you have to feel special and above-average. If someone said, "Oh, your performance was average," you would feel hurt by that, almost insulted.

When we fail, self-esteem deserts us, which is precisely when we need it most.

And so the problem is we're constantly comparing ourselves to others. We try to puff ourselves up. We have what's called self-enhancement bias, where we see ourselves as better in almost any culturally valued trait. There's a large body of research showing that bullying is largely caused by the quest for high self-esteem—the process of feeling special and better-than.

So if I can pick on the weird, nerdy kid, I actually get a self-esteem boost. Then, if you look at things like prejudice, at least some element playing a role in prejudice is if I feel that my religious group or my ethnic group is better than yours, that's one way to make a social comparison, and I am actually boosting my self-esteem. So that's a problem. And also the fact that on some level, someone is always going to be doing it better.

When I teach workshops I say, it's logically impossible for everyone to be above average at all times, so we're basically predicating ourselves with a logical impossibility. Eventually that's going to hit reality. Maybe somebody does do that better than me. Do I accept that or am I destabilized by that?

Usually, self-esteem is highly contingent on success. And the three domains it’s contingent on are, first, peer approval. That's what other kids at school and other people of work think of me, which is a really lousy source of information, because a) they don't know you very well and b) you don't know what they think of you very well.

And then, perceived appearance, which for women is especially damning, and it's also the most important domain for self-esteem for women. One of the reasons boys don't suffer as much from low self-esteem is that boys, growing up, they think they're pretty attractive. They rate their own attractiveness pretty high. The standards of beauty are much higher for girls than for boys. For girls, from the third grade, you start seeing a nose-dive in how attractive they think they are. Starting in third grade think, girls think, "I'm fat," and "I'm not pretty enough," and start comparing themselves to high standards and their self-esteem takes a hit. Boys stay pretty stable.

The final one is success. The real problem with that is self-esteem is only available when we succeed. But when we fail, self-esteem deserts us, which is precisely when we need it most. And some people argue that the instability of self-esteem going up and down is more damaging than the level of self-esteem itself.

Khazan: So what is self-compassion? How is it better?

Neff: It means treating yourself with the same kind of kindness, care, compassion, as you would treat those you care about—your good friends, your loved ones.

One component is self-kindness, which is in a way the most obvious. But it also entails a recognition of common humanity—in other words, the understanding that all people are imperfect, and all people have imperfect lives. Sometimes, when we fail, we react as if something has gone wrong—that this shouldn't be happening. “I shouldn't have failed, I shouldn't have had this issue come up in my life.” And this sense that “this shouldn't be happening,” as if everyone else in the world were living perfectly happy, unproblematic lives. That type of thinking really causes a lot of additional suffering, because people feel isolated and separated from the rest of humanity.

So, when we have self-compassion, when we fail, it's not “poor me,” it's “well, everyone fails.” Everyone struggles. This is what it means to be human. And that really radically alters how we relate to failure and difficulty. When we say, "Oh, this is normal, this is part of what it means to human," that opens the door to the grow from the experience. If we feel like it's abnormal, this shouldn't be happening, then we start blaming ourselves.

Self-compassion also entails a mindfulness. In order to have self-compassion, we have to be willing to turn toward and acknowledge our suffering. Typically, we don't want to do that. We want to avoid it, we don't want to think about it, and want to go straight into problem-solving.

And in fact, I would argue that self-compassion also provides a sense of self-worth, but it's not linked to narcissism the way self-esteem is. It's not linked to social comparison the way self-esteem is, and it's not contingent, because you have self-compassion both when you fail and when you succeed. The sense of self-worth that comes from being kind to yourself is much more stable over time than the sense of self-worth that comes from judging yourself positively.

Khazan: What would someone who experienced a major setback say to themselves if they were being self-compassionate?

Neff: I write a lot about this in my book because my son was diagnosed with autism. He's 14 now. In my book, I talk about, thank God I had many years of self-compassion practice under my belt, because immediately when it happened, I knew what I needed to do. Instead of just going into “what type of therapy, what type of treatment?” I knew I had to acknowledge that this was difficult for me, that it was emotionally painful. I had to really think about being kind and caring and understanding to myself, letting myself feel whatever feelings were coming up, whether or not I thought I should be having them.

The self-worth that comes from being kind to yourself is much more stable than that which comes from judging yourself positively.

I remember one time I was at the playground and there were all these mothers with their kids and they were all laughing and interacting, and my son was off in a corner not interacting. I started going down the path of self-pity. You know, “why me, why me ...” But when I remembered common humanity, I had this very powerful experience where I remembered, wait a second, maybe these mothers are not dealing autism, but every single one of these mothers will have challenges with their child in some form or another. Maybe a mental health issue or a physical issue or maybe they'll have a very conflict-filled relationship. Once I had made the switch from “poor me” to “this is what motherhood's all about—we have challenges with our children and we love them anyway,” it really radically reframed how I related to my own emotional difficulty. It made it much more easy to cope.

Khazan: I noticed that you found this works for romantic relationships, for body image ... what are some of the various contexts that you found that this works in?

Neff: One is coping and resilience. A lot of people think self-compassion is weak. Well, it's not. For instance, there's some work with combat vets, on their level of self-compassion— are they an inner enemy or an inner ally? The vets who were an inner ally instead of an inner enemy cope much better and are much less likely to develop PTSD symptoms. It helps people cope with divorce, pain, age.

A big one, which a lot of people just can't quite believe, is that it enhances motivation. People who are more self-compassionate, when they fail, they're less afraid of failure. There was a study where helping people be more self-compassionate about failure [on a test], later on when they had a chance to study for a second test, they actually studied longer than people who were not told to be self-compassionate. Because, basically, it creates an environment where it's safe to fail, so self-compassionate people are often more likely to try again. They also have more self-confidence, because they aren't cutting themselves down all the time.

There's some work on physical health, showing that self-compassion is linked to better immune function. Studies show that it stabilizes glucose levels in diabetes patients, another one looking at telomere lengths—it's associated with longer telomeres. [Self-compassionate] people are healthier, they take better care of themselves, they are more likely to exercise and eat well, more likely to go to the doctor. Self-compassion is caring about yourself and not wanting yourself to suffer.

Khazan: One of your findings is the men have more self-compassion than women. Why is that?

Neff: It's a very small difference, but it's consistent: Women tend to be less self-compassionate than men. Now, we're doing research looking at gender role orientation, and androgynous women—women who draw equally on their masculine and feminine sides— have exactly the same level of self-compassion [as men]. It seems to be the feminine women ... when you think about it, when you really identify with norms of self-sacrifice, “I should always be meeting the needs of others,” a lot of those problems that come from identifying with the traditional female stereotype. They're the ones who seem to suffer more. This is kind of new data, I haven't even published this data yet, it's kind of interesting but it makes sense to me. Women are told they should not take care of themselves; that they should always be outwardly focused.

Khazan: Is there a risk, though, that you can sort of forgive yourself for too much?

Neff: That's another surprising finding. People who are more self-compassionate are more likely to take personal responsibility for harming others and are more likely to apologize. When it's safe to make a mistake and you have the resources to say, “I can't believe I said that...” Self-compassion gives you the resources to acknowledge that and see yourself clearly, because you're not saying you're a horrible person, you're just saying, “Wow, I was out of line there.” And that actually increases your ability to take responsibility and apologize.

You might think that I'm batting all of these concerns away, but the research is pretty clear now. All the fears we have of self-compassion are pretty much based on misconceptions. And the research shows the opposite. Self-compassion helps you be motivated, it helps you take responsibility. It's not self-indulgent, it's not selfish, it leads to better relationships. I find it's quite remarkable how much research there is supporting these ideas.

Khazan: That’s great. So, how do you cultivate it if you’re not a naturally self-compassionate person?

Neff: One of the easiest ways is, "What would I say to a close friend I cared about in this situation?" So most of us have a lot more experience being compassionate to others than to ourselves.

Another one we talk about, actually, believe it or not, is physical touch. The physiological compassion system is triggered by the main three triggers, which is physical warmth, gentle touch, and soothing vocalizations (an ahhh sound), so it's amazing what you can do with a gesture. You know, putting your hands on your heart, or something for you that's supportive. What happens is your physiology calms down and the caregiving system gets activated and helps facilitate the talking to yourself in a kinder way. I always tell people, yes it is touchy-feely, but don't underestimate it because we are mammals at the end of the day.

Khazan: One reason this is hard for me to conceptualize is that I just don't think that's what friends say when their friends mess up? I think friends are more likely to say, “oh, it wasn’t really that bad,” or “that person deserved it.” To sort of minimize, rather than acknowledge the friend’s wrongdoing.

Neff: I think that's a good point. I think, in some ways, a parent might be a better example, because a parent is really invested in the well-being of their child. And a parent really wants to make sure that child grows up not doing things that are going to be harmful to them.

People have access to the language more easily when they think about how they treat a friend, because they are just much more experienced at it. But again, that mindfulness has to be there. If the compassion is used to say, “Oh, it's no big deal,” if it doesn't acknowledge the big deal ... you have to be aware when you use self-compassion that you aren't using it in a tricky way or in a superficial way, to make the pain go away and pretend there's not a problem when there really is one. You have to fully acknowledge that there's a problem here, a mistake was made. And once you do that, framing it in a larger compassionate perspective helps you to simultaneously acknowledge it, hopefully do some healing, and move on.

Re-post: Work Life Balance- Chasing the Horizon?

Link to video:


This Ted Talk, given by Nigel Marsh, gives his insight on the persistent question of how to manage your work-life balance. He lays out the ideal day, and offers encouragement to make it happen! Keeping focused on the important tasks- both at work and at home often requires techniques to streamline the most important things in your life. Past JCD blogs offer quick tips to successfully do so.

Re-blog: (Mis)understanding Millenials

From the Washington Post's "Wonkblog" on May 11th, 2016:

How badly companies misunderstand millennials

By Niraj Chokshi May 11, 2016

Working millennials ask a lot of their employers, but game rooms and rock walls are low on the list.

In fact, baby boomers more than millennials seek out jobs that are fun and encourage creativity, according to a new Gallup report that identifies what employers get right, and wrong, about millennials in the workforce.

What that rising generation seeks is actually pretty simple: Millennials — those Americans born between 1980 and 1996 — just want to know where they stand and where they're going.

"They want a workplace that helps them progress, but they also want to see their own value," said Jim Harter, chief scientist for workplace management and well-being for Gallup’s workplace management practice.

The report — the results of surveys of tens of thousands of Americans — lays out six broad changes that organizations can make to attract and keep what is now the dominant generation in the United States workforce.

The first is a shift in focus from paycheck to purpose.

When professional and personal lives were more cleanly separate, a paycheck was enough. But because of the erosion of the wall between work and play, millennials also expect to derive a sense of purpose from their jobs. Work is life.

Job satisfaction still matters, but millennials are increasingly concerned with their development; they want to see their careers progressing. As a result, bosses should act like coaches, and rare, formal reviews should be replaced with ongoing conversations.

"Giving out toys and entitlements is a leadership mistake, and worse, it’s condescending," Gallup Chairman and chief executive Jim Clifton writes in the report. "Purpose and development drive this generation."

Employers should take note, especially because millennials are a particularly flighty generation.

About 60 percent report being open to a new job opportunity — a full 15 percentage points higher than non-millennial workers. More than a third — 36 percent — said they will actively look for new work if the job market improves in the year ahead, compared to just 21 percent of non-millennials.

Meet the average millennial

But don't mistake that flightiness for a lack of commitment. Millennials are just dissatisfied: 55 percent report feeling unengaged at work, five points higher than Gen Xers, seven points above boomers and 14 points more than traditionalists.

"Many millennials likely don’t want to switch jobs, but their companies are not giving them compelling reasons to stay," Gallup reports. "When they see what appears to be a better opportunity, they have every incentive to take it."

When they're looking for new work, Millennials want to see signs that bode well for their career development. The top five things they consider, according to Gallup, are: opportunities to learn and grow, quality of their manager, quality of management in general, interest in the type of work and opportunities for advancement.

Although those qualities are important to members of every generation, millennials are particularly concerned with some of them. For example, 59 percent of millennials rate opportunities to learn and grow as "extremely important" when applying for a new job. Just 44 percent of Gen Xers and 41 percent of baby boomers say the same. Exactly half of millennials rate advancement opportunities as extremely important in a job search, compared to 42 percent of Gen Xers and 40 percent of boomers.

Boomers and millennials hold quality of managers and management and interest in work in similar regard, while Gen Xers are slightly less concerned about those, although many still rate them as extremely important.

Re-Blog: Listening from the "On-Being" podcast

The old saying goes, "You have two ears and only one mouth for a reason". This is a great podcast from the show "On-Being" with David Isay, the creator of StoryCorps on the importance- and power- of listening. Through his experience, Isay showcases the stories- and ideas that lie within an infinitely wide variety of people. This interview really shows how important it is to not only listen, but to listen well, and listen deep. Enjoy!

Re-Blog: Remembering Mindfulness at Work

This quick article by Georgia Slonim is a nice reminder of just how easy it is to increase mindfulness during one of the more stressful activities you do: work. 

Original post: 

Mindfulness is one of the easiest and cheapest ways to improve employee wellbeing these days, so it is no surprise that it is such a growing trend in workplaces. The word mindfulness is thrown around a lot, but what does it actually mean?

Simply put, mindfulness is the process of actively paying attention to the present moment. By connecting with what is happening here and now, we can stop heedlessly cruising through everyday life, and make the most of every experience.

Mindfulness is not a new concept, but the benefits of it have only recently become well known. It has been proven to help manage stress, improve productivity, reduce anxiety and increase creativity. In the context of a workplace, it can help achieve a good work life balance, increase moral and produce clearer, more-focused thinking.

So how can you incorporate mindfulness into your work life?

Conscious awareness

Conscious awareness starts before you even get to work. Whether it’s the moment you wake up, on your walk to work or in the car before you go in, it’s important to take the time to relax, breath, and think about the day ahead.

As you take a deep breath, think about how you are feeling. What do you want to achieve today? What do you want to focus on? Having a clear goal for the day allows you to productively and confidently manage your work.

Meditation at the end of a meeting

At the end of a group meeting, take five minutes to breath together in silence. Allow this time to reflect on all that was communicated. Take the focus off yourself, and concentrate on understanding what others said.

Remember your thoughts, and keep them in mind when interacting with colleagues throughout the day.

Set mindfulness reminders

Set an alarm every few hours on your phone, to remind yourself to be mindful. When the alarm goes off, take a few minutes to simply sit at your desk, and think about the task you are working on.

Are you putting your full attention into the task? Is there something distracting you? Take the time to redirect your thoughts and efforts to the present moment, and return to the task with a fresh perspective.

Mindfulness takes practice, but following these steps everyday will turn small changes into meaningful habits.

About the author: Georgia Slonim is communications lead at Purposeful. Get in touch with Georgia at @purposeful_au.

Recent Interview: "A Conversation with Janet Pinkerton Dombrowski"

Interviewed by Kim Pham, Global MHSA Candidate '17
(January 2017)

This is part of an ongoing series where students (like me) conduct in-depth interviews with alumni (like Janet) and post the results. I hope you'll get as much enjoyment out of reading the following excerpts about the successes of our fellow HMP alum as I did hearing them.

Q. What do you cherish most from your experience as an HMP student? And now as an HMP alum?

As an HMP student, one of the things I cherish most has been all of the connections I have made, as well as the people that have comprised this program. It was great to observe so many different perspectives and walks of life, but all with the same interest in impacting health care in a different manner than my direct health care experience. Another thing was the exposure to all of these new ideas. It really broadened my perspective and helped me to understand what health care was outside of clinical care. I loved learning about urban health care, community health, and policy - really getting to understand the underlying themes in healthcare administration.

As an alum, I would say the same still rings true today: it's the connections and exposure that I still cherish. I've enjoyed staying in touch with my cohort, and other alums, and being connected with students as well. That's really special – the students always give me so much energy. I also love seeing how the HMP program has evolved – seeing new focus on subjects we didn't get to discuss as much, like mental health, international health, and population health.

Q. You currently serve as President of JCD Advisors here in Ann Arbor, which combines strategy and organizational development with executive coaching. Traditionally, HMP students are more exposed to hospital administration, consulting, or policy positions. What made you decide to pursue this venture?

[Chuckles] If you had asked me 20 years ago if this is where I would end up, I would've never guessed this. I only applied to fellowships after graduation and was set on hospital administration. I was fortunate to get a lot of experience in strategy development, and business development in both health systems and consulting. Understanding business operations - the value proposition, pitch, and delivery - I had the opportunity to get involved with mergers and acquisitions. At Trinity Health I led negotiations for the acquisition of St. Mary in Livonia, and was part of the leadership team to help integrate St. Mary's into Trinity Health. It was that endeavor where I realized that strategy and business development skills alone were not going to be enough for this organization's success; leadership, culture, and organizational structures were even more important. This was my aha! moment and my opportunity for growth and development.

Through the system's HR department, I was able to train in executive coaching, culture transformation, and other organizational development skills. With these skills, the strong professional relationships I'd built over my career, and a desire for flexibility for my family, I decided to start my own business upon leaving Trinity Health.

Q: How would you advise students interested in pursuing a track like this?

I believe that to do this type of work, you need to have lived the experience of a senior leader or have "sat in that seat". The necessary intuition and gravitas, or the ability to sit with power (to speak candidly with a physician or CEO), comes with experience. A big challenge is finding people who can have the credibility and authority to be able to do this effectively. That being said, anyone can always be a student of organizational behavior. When you and other students start out in your next job, observe how leaders lead, how work gets done, and how teams can be effective. Ask yourself questions, like what would you do differently? What do you think is really important? There are some tools out there that can help give structure to what you are seeing. A great book is The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, it provides a great framework.

Q. Additionally, your firm has emphasized key leadership competencies more widely discussed in positive organizational scholarship, like compassion and gratitude. Could you please speak on the importance of honing those, and potentially other aspects of emotional intelligence, as we all continue developing ourselves as leaders?

You can always build more technical competencies, but it's the behavioral competencies (or lack thereof) that tend to create problems for people. I work with professionals who are already "successful", so it's this idea of having them build self-awareness, getting them off autopilot, and intentionally choosing how to behave as a leader.

I am also learning a lot about the significance of neuro-leadership, the biology and physiology of leadership. For example, when you encounter a social threat (like an organizational or role change), functional MRIs show that your brain's response is similar to when it responds to a physical threat, like entering fight-or-flight mode. While you might not recognize this psychologically, understanding this innate response is important because it means you may have to fight against your self-protective mechanisms in times of change.

Q. As we enter an era of change for health care policy, how would you advise students and professionals in navigating change?

What leaders really need right now is to get the best out of themselves and the best out of other people. Build resilience. Keep people healthy and at their best - this is essential in tapping into their best thinking for innovation and creative problem solving. I like to use this analogy: when we are threatened during change, it's like an aperture in a camera that narrows and closes in (to protect ourselves). What we really need in the face of change or difficult times, is to open our apertures. We need to open up our minds and broaden our perspectives, engaging others' viewpoints.

Q. Any last words of wisdom to share with other fellow Wolverines?

Stay connected to the program and stay connected to each other. This helps to keep your aperture open. There are a lot of ways to stay connected and there's a lot of value in that. Also remember your network - it is there to give you a broader view of the world. Foster relationships, rather than "a network". For example, with LinkedIn invitations, include a personal note. Remember the reciprocity in relationships. Seek to provide value as you grow and maintain your relationships – that is when the value of your "network" will come back to you.

Mindfulness to Navigate Organizational Change

As the United States enters the reality of a very large organizational change, it is easy to get caught up in emotion and ignore calls to be mindful. This post, originally by Michelle Somerday highlights ways to remain aware during turbulent times, and can be effective during any changes in your life. 

What does acceptance have to do with organizational change?

During periods of change, much of what happens may be beyond our control. Sometimes the end goal of change is clearly defined, but other times the future state is less certain. Even if we are supportive of the change and know where we are headed, our brains still register change as a threat. All of these things mean that change frequently creates feelings of anxiety and distress.

Not surprisingly, our common response is to try to resist the change. We try to avoid or ignore the specific situations causing the stress, or push our uncomfortable feelings out of our minds. Or, we want to alter the current situation to lessen our discomfort, which is often not an option. 

Here’s the interesting thing: when we are willing to stay open to the present situation exactly as it is, even if it is uncomfortable, we actually increase our ability to handle discomfort. We become more able to skillfully navigate stressful situations, a critical talent in work environments experiencing change. 


When we experience a stressful or chaotic situation, it can feel analogous to being caught in running rapids. We have no control, we are carried along in the tumult, and the waters toss us around. When we practice mindfulness, we are training ourselves to simply observe the turbulent water—the situation itself plus our response to it. In essence, we train ourselves to stand on the banks of the river. When we are standing on the riverbanks, we are no longer caught in the flow of the water. We can’t control challenging events, but we can control how we relate to them. And in doing so, we lessen the impact of these events on us. 

What can research tell us about acceptance and mindfulness? 

Acceptance is so powerful that a 2011 study at the University of Montreal showed that experienced mindfulness practitioners were able to handle higher degrees of pain than non-practitioners. 

Researchers observing the brain activity of the participants were able to tell that during the experience, the mindfulness practitioners actually had more activity in the mindful parts of their brains and less activity in the narrative parts of their brains. In other words, the mindfulness practitioners were giving greater attention to the pain sensations but had less internal commentary about them (“This is awful! The heat is unbearable!”). 

Daniel Siegal, M.D., co-director of the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center, reports in his book Mindsight that “people with mindful awareness training have a shift in their brains toward an ‘approach state’ that allows them to move toward rather than away from challenging situations. This is the brain signature of resilience.” And one definition of resilience is being able to successfully navigate change. 

I hope that this series has given you a good introduction to the practice of mindfulness and how it can support and benefit you in the workplace.

Original article:

We Teach Mindfulness to Adults, Why Not Children Too?

Compassion, empathy, kindness- all traits of an effective and mindful leader. Why should we wait until people enter the working world to try to instill theses traits? This excerpt from an article by Laura Pinger and Lisa Flook argues that teaching mindfulness at a very young age will help develop genuinely kind, effective people and leaders. What is most interesting is the way in which mindfulness is explained to children, and the similarities- and differences to how we teach it to adults.

Original Article: 

Walking to class one day, one of us (Laura) saw a young student crying and waiting for his mother to arrive—he had split his chin while playing. When Laura got to class, the other students were very upset and afraid for their friend, full of questions about what would happen to him. Laura decided to ask the class how they could help him.

“Caring practice!” exclaimed one of the children—and they all sat in a circle offering support and well wishes. The children immediately calmed and they continued with their lesson.

Various mindfulness programs have been developed for adults, but we and our colleagues at the Center for Healthy Minds (CHM) at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, wanted to develop a curriculum for kids. Every school teaches math and reading, but what about mindfulness and kindness?

We ended up bringing a 12-week curriculum to six schools in the Midwest. Twice a week for 20 minutes, pre-kindergarten kids were introduced to stories and practices for paying attention, regulating their emotions, and cultivating kindness. It’s just the beginning, but the initial results of our research, co-authored with CHM founder Professor Richard Davidson and graduate research assistant Simon Goldberg, suggest that this program can improve kids’ grades, cognitive abilities, and relationship skills.

Why teach kindness to kids?

The school environment can be very stressful; in addition to any issues they bring from home, many students struggle to make friends and perform well in class. Being excluded, ignored, or teased is very painful for a young child, and we thought it could be impactful to teach empathy and compassion.

When other kids are suffering—like that boy who split his chin—can we understand how they might be feeling? Kindness bridges those gaps and helps build a sense of connection among the students, the teachers, and even the parents. Learning to strengthen their attention and regulate their emotions are foundational skills that could benefit kids in school and throughout their whole lives.

On top of that, having classrooms full of mindful, kind kids completely changes the school environment. Imagine entire schools—entire districts—where kindness is emphasized. That would be truly powerful. Teaching kindness is a way to bubble up widespread transformation that doesn’t require big policy changes or extensive administrative involvement.

Running and studying a Kindness Curriculum

If you had visited one of our classrooms during the 12-week program, you might have seen a poster on the wall called “Kindness Garden.” When kids performed an act of kindness or benefitted from one, they added a sticker to the poster. The idea is that friendship is like a seed—it needs to be nurtured and taken care of in order to grow. Through that exercise, we got students talking about how kindness feels good and how we might grow more friendship in the classroom.

Another day, you might have found students in pairs holding Peace Wands, one with a heart and one with a star. The child with the heart wand speaks (“from the heart”); the other child (the “star listener”) listens and then repeats back what was said. When there was a conflict between students, they used the wands to support the process of paying attention, expressing their feelings, and building empathy.

Our Kindness Curriculum combines creative activities like these, as well as books, songs, and movement, to communicate concepts in a way that is understandable to four year olds. Our instructors taught the curriculum with active participation by classroom teachers.

The Kindness Curriculum is designed around the ABCs—or, more specifically, A to G:

  • Attention. Students learn that what they focus on is a choice. Through focusing attention on a variety of external sensations (the sound of a bell, the look of a stone) and internal sensations (feeling happy or sad), children learn they can direct their attention and maintain focus.
  • Breath and Body. Students learn to use their breath to cultivate some peace and quiet. Instead of listening to a meditation, we played a song from Betsy Rose’s CD Calm Down Boogie, “Breathing In, Breathing Out,” while the children rested on their backs with a beanie baby on their belly. The beanie provided an object to “rock to sleep” with the natural in- and out-breath, while the breathing calmed the body.
  • Caring. Here, we teach kids to think about how others are feeling and cultivate kindness. We read the book Sumi’s First Day of School Ever, the story of a foreign student who struggles with English, and brainstorm ways to help a student like Sumi—as simple as offering a smile.
  • Depending on other people. We emphasize that everyone supports and is supported by others through the book Somewhere Today, which describes acts of kindness that are going on in the world right now. Students learn to see themselves as helpers and begin to develop gratitude for the kindness of others.
  • Emotions. What do emotions feel like and look like? How can you tell what you’re feeling? We play a game where the teacher and students take turns pretending to be angry, sad, happy, or surprised, guessing which emotion was expressed, and talking about what that emotion feels like in the body.
  • Forgiveness. Young kids can be particularly hard on themselves—and others—and we teach them that everyone makes mistakes. A book called Down the Road tells the story of a girl who breaks the eggs she bought for her parents, but they forgive her.
  • Gratitude. We want kids to recognize the kind acts that other people do for them, so we have them pretend to be various community workers like bus drivers and firefighters. Then, they talk about being thankful to those people for how they help us.

Sixty-eight students participated in the research, with about half going through the Kindness Curriculum and the other half measured as a comparison. To investigate the impact of the curriculum, we tested children before and after the training period.

The results of our study were promising. Students who went through the curriculum showed more empathy and kindness and a greater ability to calm themselves down when they felt upset, according to teachers’ ratings. In an exercise with stickers, they consistently shared about half of them, whereas students who hadn’t gone through the curriculum shared less over time. They earned higher grades at the end of the year in certain areas (notably for social and emotional development), and they showed improvement in the ability to think flexibly and delay gratification, skills that have been linked to health and success later in life.

This was a small study, and we’d love to see deeper investigations into our Kindness Curriculum in the future. For example, what happens over a longer time if we support students’ practice throughout the year and into the next school year and beyond? If parents got involved in the curriculum, they could provide powerful support as well.

In the midst of their distress, the children found comfort and support for themselves and their friend rather than feeling upset and worried. They later shared with him that they had offered him these wishes. It’s these small changes, spread across classrooms, that could make schools more kind—and educate a new generation of more compassionate and connected citizens.

HBR: Leaders Can Shape Company Culture Through Their Behaviors

Original Article:

Jim Whitehurst, CEO of Red Hat

One business buzzword we hear almost everyday is “culture,” as in, our organization has a “strong” or “innovative” or even a “toxic” culture. But what do we really mean when we say this?

For me, an organizational culture is defined by how people inside the organization interact with each other. Culture is learned behavior — it’s not a by-product of operations. It’s not an overlay. We create our organizational culture by the actions we take; not the other way around.

For example, I sit on the board of United Airlines. At the start of every board meeting, the first topic of discussion is about where the fire exits are, how to access the stairs, and where we will meet up afterward. Why would we bother starting every meeting that way? Because United’s culture is built on safety. And the best way to cultivate and reinforce that culture is to lead with behaviors and take actions that promote the importance of safety.

Another element of United’s culture is timeliness. I am a punctual person by nature, but I recall dialing in to one board meeting a few seconds late. The other participants started a few minutes before I joined. They saw a chance to start early, so they did.

I share these stories as a way to show that how we behave as leaders drives the kind of culture we end up with. But this is also why changing an existing culture can be so difficult.

This is a topic fellow executives ask me about a lot. It’s not easy to change a culture, because it involves changing how we behave. If you’re running a company that has been doing something a certain way for a long time, it can be hard to get everyone on board with doing it differently. And that includes your organizational leaders.

Picture the following scenario. A group of executives decides that their organizational culture needs to become more “customer focused.” But when you look at the agenda of their meetings, there’s no time devoted to discussing how they can improve their customers’ experience. And how much time do those executives actually spend out in the field, visiting customers, let alone fielding calls from them? If these executives prioritize something other than customers in their behavior, don’t you think the rest of the organization will follow suit?

It’s easy to think that building a culture is about other people’s behaviors, not how you act as a leader. But I believe that culture change begins when leaders start to model the behavior they want the organization to emulate.

Case in point: A lot of executives come to me for advice about how they can build a more innovative culture, like the one we have at Red Hat. Well, it’s not as simple as telling everyone to “go out there and innovate!”

Our innovative culture is a product of the behaviors that we embrace throughout our organization. One of those elements is a willingness to have open and frank discussions about what separates great ideas from bad ones. If you want to be innovative, you also need to accept failure. If our associates aren’t pushing boundaries and sometimes failing along the way, we probably aren’t pushing hard enough. But by accepting and even celebrating a failed effort, we promote innovation. We will reward someone who tries to climb the tallest mountain, even if they fall short of the summit, because they have created an experience we can learn from and build upon. That’s what innovation is all about.

Consider an example from Amazon, one of the world’s most valuable companies. Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder and CEO, has said that if his people have a one-in-10 chance of making a 100x return on an investment, he wants them to make that bet every time. But that means that to reap the reward Amazon needs to be willing to tolerate someone failing nine out of 10 times.

That can be a hard concept for traditionally run companies to wrap their heads around. They are used to measuring objective outcomes and results. They might think that failing is not something to celebrate; it’s to be punished. So, why would anyone be surprised when innovation stalls as a result? After all, who would be willing to stick their neck out to try something new if there wasn’t any upside to doing so?

The point is that building an innovative culture starts by looking at how you behave as a leader toward those trying to innovate. The same is true about any kind of culture: It all begins with the behavior of your leaders. To say that another way, if you are interested in changing the culture of your organization, your first step should be to look in the mirror and make sure you are setting the kind of behavioral example you want everyone else to follow.

HBR: Mindfulness Works but Only If You Work at It

Original Article by Megan Reitz and Michael Chaskalson, published November 4th, 2016.

The latest trend in leadership development is mindfulness training. There is a burgeoning array of apps, self-help books, and corporate interventions designed to help leaders become more mindful and thus more resilient, focused, and aware — qualities that many executives believe can make them more effective in their roles.

Mindfulness — a way of paying attention with care and discernment to yourself, others, and the world around you — has been much researched. But although evidence from clinical contexts suggests that mindfulness provides many benefits, few studies have been conducted with business leaders. This means that basic questions have remained unanswered. For example, does mindfulness training actually improve leadership capacities? If it does, how? And how much effort do you need to make to achieve results?

Trying to answer these and other important questions, we conducted the world’s first study of a multisession mindful leader program, which included a wait-list control group. Half of the participants received their training immediately and the other half received it later, but we measured key characteristics in both groups at the same times. By comparing the two groups’ results, we were able to discover what the effect of training really was.

Our data was drawn from 57 senior business leaders who attended three half-day workshops every two weeks as well as a full-day workshop and a final facilitated conference call. We taught them mindfulness practices, discussed the implications for leadership today, and assigned home practice of daily mindfulness meditation and other exercises. We recorded the difficulties in our participants’ attempts to learn to be mindful throughout the process.

We believe our findings provide a valuable, robust, and realistic guide for leaders seeking to become more mindful.

Our study shows that mindfulness training and sustained practice produces statistically significant improvements in three capacities that are important for successful leadership in the 21st century: resilience, the capacity for collaboration, and the ability to lead in complex conditions.

This is great news, isn’t it? An easy win. Go through a mindfulness program, and you become a better leader. But there is always a price to be paid. In this case it is formal mindfulness practice time.

We asked our leaders to undertake a variety of different formal mindfulness exercises, guided by audio downloads, every day. In addition, we encouraged them to do informal mindfulness practices (such as those laid out by Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter in their article earlier this year). Our research shows that leaders who practiced the formal mindfulness exercises for more than 10 minutes per day fared much better on our key measures than those who didn’t practice much or who relied on the informal practices alone.

The message is clear: If you want the benefits, you have to put in the time to practice.

There is a paradox here, of course. Time is the one thing most senior leaders don’t have in abundance and are least willing to give up.

So let’s put the time commitment in perspective. We know that senior executives spend an average of 1,060 minutes awake per day. And yet allocating just 10 minutes — less than 1% of their waking hours — to practicing mindfulness proves demanding for some and impossible for others.

Our research points to some of the challenges that get in the way. First, leaders seek out mindfulness as a solution to their crushing work pressures, their busy timetables, their multiple task lists — and yet it is precisely these things that then get in the way of their practice. In our research, “busyness” and a focus on what needed to be done in the short term was one of the most commonly cited reasons for lack of practice. The leaders who made real changes determinedly broke through that self-defeating cycle of pressure.

But we also found that the leaders frequently berated themselves for their lack of practice. They felt guilty and even anxious. One memorable quote from an exasperated leader was, “I’m stressed about this mindfulness!” As they piled pressure on themselves, some began to dislike practice and a few finally resisted altogether.

Leaders can rarely develop a new habit, including practicing mindfulness, without help and support from others. Some leaders in our research received generous encouragement from their partners and work colleagues. In moments when they might have given up, this support sustained them. Others were met with cynicism and in a few cases were even teased.

Fortunately, the research helped us more clearly understand the things that can help leaders practice. It isn’t surprising that they are related to the challenges above.

Our research suggests that if you want to develop a formal mindfulness practice, you should:

  • Think carefully about when you are most likely and able to practice, and then fit 10 minutes into your routine so that over time it becomes a habit. First thing in the morning works best for many. Listening to an audio exercise on your commute is popular and seems to set up the day well. Others find that the only time they can commit to is just before bed. This can work, but it can often initiate sleep before the exercise ends!
  • Set realistic expectations for your practice; expect your experience with developing a new habit to be turbulent. Mindfulness is not about getting rid of all thoughts — it is about noticing what thoughts are there. Don’t be surprised if some days your mind is busy, fretful, or even wildly unruly. When this is the case, practice curiosity and the art of allowing.
  • Notice times when you begin to be more mindful and acknowledge the impact this brings to you and others. Seeing the benefits in your practice is essential to continuing.
  • If you feel comfortable doing so, tell those closest to you at work and home that you are trying to build a mindfulness practice. Tell them how they can help and support you.
  • Connect with others who are interested in becoming more mindful. You can encourage and challenge each other to keep to the practice.

Just like becoming fitter, becoming more mindful involves training. That means you have to practice. Giving up 1% of your time is a small price to pay for the improvements that are on offer.