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Self-Awareness 101

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

The article: “What Self-Awareness Really Is (and How to Cultivate It)” by Tasha Eurich in Harvard Business Review, January 4, 2018, Read online here.
In this Harvard Business Review article, organizational psychologist Tasha Eurich says that people with good self-awareness are more confident and creative, communicate more effectively, build stronger relationships, make sounder decisions, and are less likely to lie, cheat, and steal. These insights came from four years of research with almost 5,000 subjects. An initial takeaway: although most people believe they are self-aware, only 10-15 percent really are. This led the researchers to look more closely at the whole subject. Three major findings:
• There are two ways of knowing ourselves. The first is internal self-awareness – how clearly we see our own values, passions, aspirations, fit with our environment, reactions (thoughts, feelings, behaviors, strengths, weaknesses), and impact on others. People with good internal self-awareness have higher job and relationship satisfaction, personal and social control, and happiness. Those with poor internal self-awareness are more prone to anxiety, stress, and depression.
The second is external self-awareness – understanding how other people view us on the dimensions above. Those with good external self-awareness are better at showing empathy and taking the perspective of others, and their colleagues have better relationships with them, feel more satisfied with them, and see them as more effective.
Surprisingly, the researchers found virtually no relationship between internal and external self-awareness. Teasing out the permutations, they defined four types of leaders:
- Seekers (low internal and low external self-awareness) – They don’t yet know who they are, what they stand for, or how their teams see them, and may feel stuck or frustrated with their performance and relationships.
- Pleasers (low internal and high external self-awareness) – They can be so focused on appearing a certain way to others that they could be overlooking what matters to them, and over time make choices that don’t serve their own success and fulfillment.
- Introspectors (high internal and low external self-awareness) – They’re clear on who they are but don’t challenge their own views or search for blind spots by getting feedback from others.
- Aware (high internal and high external self-awareness) – They know who they are, what they want to accomplish, and seek out and value others’ opinions.
“The bottom line,” says Eurich, “is that self-awareness isn’t one truth. It’s a delicate balance of
two distinct, even competing, viewpoints.” The most effective leaders consciously cultivate both types.
• Experience doesn’t improve self-awareness. Quite the contrary, as leaders became more experienced and powerful, their self-awareness became less and less accurate. “Contrary to popular belief,” says Eurich, “studies have shown that people do not always learn from experience, that expertise does not help people root out false information, and that seeing ourselves as highly experienced can keep us from doing our homework, seeking disconfirming evidence, and questioning our assumptions.”
Why does this happen? First, as people rise in the hierarchy there are fewer people above them who can provide candid feedback. Second, the more powerful a leader is, the less comfortable people are giving critical feedback (for fear of their own status). And third, as one’s power increases, one’s willingness to seek out and listen to feedback shrinks.
“But this doesn’t have to be the case,” says Eurich. The most successful leaders in the study pushed back on all three tendencies: they actively sought feedback, encouraged those around them to speak honestly (they actually loved their critics!), listened, checked in with others when they got critical feedback, and continuously improved their internal and external self-awareness.
• Introspection doesn’t always lead to self-awareness. It turns out that navel-gazers “are less self-aware and report worse job satisfaction and well-being,” says Eurich. But the problem isn’t with introspection itself; it’s that most people are doing it wrong. A prime example: asking “why” to understand our emotions:
- Why don’t I like this person?
- Why did I fly off the handle?
- Why am I so against this idea?
“As it turns out,” says Eurich, “‘why’ is a surprisingly ineffective self-awareness question. Research has shown that we simply do not have access to many of the unconscious thoughts, feelings, and motives we’re searching for. And because so much is trapped outside our conscious awareness, we tend to invent answers that feel true but are often wrong… We tend to pounce on whatever ‘insights’ we find without questioning their validity or value, we ignore contradictory evidence, and we force our thoughts to conform to our initial explanation.” Sometimes anger or self-doubt is the result of something as simple as low blood sugar, but people caught in a self-awareness loop may obsess about their fears, shortcomings, and insecurities.
A better self-awareness question than Why? is What? “‘What’ questions help us stay objective, future-focused, and empowered to act on our new insights,” says Eurich. A manager who hated his job didn’t ask himself, “Why do I feel so terrible?” Rather, he asked, “What are the situations that make me feel terrible, and what do they have in common?” The answers led him to quit his job and pursue a far more fulfilling career in another field.
Eurich’s conclusion: “Leaders who focus on building both internal and external self-awareness, who seek honest feedback from loving critics, and who ask what instead of why, can learn to see themselves more clearly – and reap the many rewards that increased self-knowledge delivers. And no matter how much progress we make, there’s always more to learn. That’s one of the things that makes the journey to self-awareness so exciting.”

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