Don't beat yourself up over your sins. Instead, compassion or self-compassion can reduce the temptation of the deadlies.
Don’t beat yourself up over your perceived sins. Instead, compassion or self-compassion can reduce the temptation of the deadlies.

The cover title of the November 2013 issue of Scientific American Mind reads, “7 Deadly Sins: Turn Temptations into a Source of Strength.” It’s an interesting idea: that our sins could be beneficial. But then many of the articles explain these sins without offering benefits: gluttony is about food addiction; sloth details how to overcome it; wrath is about how intimacy breeds violence; greed is about the cultural cost of consumption. Sure envy describes how comparison with others can make us better people, but it seems as if the gist of the issue is that the 7 Deadly Sins remain deadly.

But there’s one thing that ratchets up all these sins (or at least the desire for these sins!), in the workplace, at home and even in our quiet little cars playing Mozart in the midst of a traffic jam commute. That thing is external pressure. Call it stress.

What happens when you turn the tables on punishment, monitoring, restriction and restraint—those punitive and critical ways of shaping behavior—and turn compassion or self-compassion on employees’ or even your own attempts at living a life less dominated by the deadlies?

Research shows that change is created more by accepting discipline than by punitive discipline – that is, helping the self learn through acceptance instead of judgment. Of course, this training toward positive change includes nudges, redirections, deflections and other ideas—but not condemnation, fury, and demeaning behavior.

The role of coaching in the workplace – good coaching – is to help people turn their risks into assets, to see if they can develop the self-direction required for success. We all hold the potential for the seven deadlines, but it’s when I’m feeling the stress of outside judgment that I attack the refrigerator (gluttony) and under this same stress when I get mad at little things, like the emptiness of my fridge.

In the workplace, when people help others learn to be responsible for their behavior and support employees in their attempts at correction, people learn make this external compassion into self-compassion. This self-compassion reduces stress and thus the temptation of the deadlies.

The basic formula is simple: identify the wayward behavior, such as a chronically late report. Ask the person to help you understand the reason for the behavior (“Help me understand what the barrier is to getting this report in on time…”). Then ask the person what they think the impact is of their behavior (“I use the information this report to roll up to another report which is due the day after I receive your report. What do you think happens if your report comes to me late?”) And once they can identify that cause-effect “stream,” ask them to tell you what they need in order to correct the situation, in this case, deliver the report to you on time, and what they think may happen if they continue to deliver it late.

Instead of the external pressure of the fear of judgment, the person identifies the facts of the situation and the context in which it exists. They identify the corrective action without the engagement of feelings that can lead to exercising gluttony, wrath, envy or a few other of the seven deadlies. It’s a simple stream of cause-effect-result.

Self-directed coaching assumes that people are actually doing their very best at every moment, and for some reason, are exhibiting behavior that is problematic in context. It also assumes that they have the possibility of choosing different behavior given a supportive environment. It’s this support and not judgment that eventually allows employees and late-night snackers to act less sinfully.