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Finding the 'Compassionate Center'

A woman standing in front of a purple screen with the words women in leadership.

​When Shannon Bayer, vice president of revenue and principal consultant at Linkage, took the stage on the first day of the 24th annual Women in Leadership (WIL) Institute in Orlando, Fla., she addressed a familiar struggle among aspiring women leaders: battling their "inner critic"—that sometimes-relentless voice in your head that never tires of trying to sabotage your success with self-doubt.

That critic can cause you to either go "one down" or "one up," Bayer explained. "One down" refers to when you're afraid to engage in a new task or role that you feel you're not prepared for—or competent enough to do. "That takes your power away," Bayer said. "Rather, you should allow yourself compassion and grace when you feel overwhelmed."

But that inner critic is not just skeptical of your own competencies, Bayer explained. It's also disparaging others. Just as you can go "one down" when you feel insecure about your competence, you can also go "one up" and cast blame elsewhere.

When you unjustifiably blame someone else for a mistake out of your own insecurity, Bayer told her audience, "Ask yourself: What connects us both? Why is this person worthy of my respect, instead of my disdain?"

To avoid the temptation to go "one up," she said, leaders should aim for the "compassionate center." Just as you should invoke compassion for yourself when you are plagued by self-doubt, you also should invoke compassion for others when you project your insecurities onto them.

‘That's Not OK’

Bayer recounted the story of an episode that occurred between her and her supervisor when she was 25 years old. Her older supervisor, who was challenged by new technologies, often asked Bayer for help doing what Bayer considered to be simple computer tasks. One day, irritated by Bayer's continued impatience, her boss remarked to her, "I know you think I'm stupid, Shannon, and that's not OK."

"She turned out to be an awesome mentor," Bayer said of that boss, "and she really helped me understand my impact on others and the need to be self-aware."

"We also have to understand this side of our inner critic," Bayer emphasized. "The minute I question my own power, I get to blame you. The 'one up' can feel good and feel righteous. But we have to socialize it. Because when we do, we're able to reduce the pain we create in the world. When you are compassionate, you are enough, your colleagues are enough, and everyone is worthy of respect."

The key is turning your inner critic into an inner coach, Bayer said. The role of a coach is to make you aware of what is going on when things go wrong and explain how to find the way forward.

"Don't allow yourself to give up power by going 'one down,' " Bayer advised. "And don't give up all your energy and effort into going 'one up.' It actually takes a commitment to stay in 'one up,' to stay judgmental and angry all the time."

"You are the leaders." Bayer told her audience. "It's your voice that matters. If you are able to show everyone what's possible instead of what's not, imagine where you could go." 

Barbara A. Gabriel is the managing editor of SHRM's Managing Smart.


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