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Daniel Goleman in his 1998 book Emotional Intelligence, referred to self-awareness as the first component of emotional intelligence and defined it as “the ability to recognize and understand your moods, emotions, and drives, as well as their effect on others”. More recently in Becoming an Agile Leader by Victoria Swisher, 2012, self-awareness is described as “the degree to which an individual has personal insight, clearly understands their own strengths and weaknesses, is free of blind spots, and uses this knowledge to perform effectively”.

Regardless of definition, there are two facets of self-awareness – internal (recognizing one’s own inner state) and external (recognizing one’s impact on others).

Leaders who are self-aware are likely to:

  • Be candid about their strengths and weaknesses
  • Focus on the future
  • Rarely be surprised by others’ feedback
  • Solicit and welcome feedback
  • Gain insights from experiences and apply moving forward
  • Remain positive about what is possible, even when faced with challenging circumstances

Why does it matter? Awareness is the foundational factor of learning agility – the willingness and ability to learn from experience and apply that learning to new situations. Research makes a strong point that for any meaningful or long-lasting change to occur, development must begin with a solid understanding of yourself (Self-Awareness, Identify and Leader Development – Douglas Hall, 2004 in D.V. Day, S.J. Zacaro and S.M. Halpin’s Leader Development for Transforming Organizations).

Focusing on self-awareness is all about practicality. Consider the following benefits:

  • Reduction of blind spots—things you think you are skilled at but others don’t share your view
  • Known gaps can be worked on if you choose
  • In one study, the best predictor of a high performance review was seeing yourself as others do

We are certainly in a time where terms like introspection, self-awareness, and even mindfulness and meditation are gaining their appropriate place in the workplace. In a ground-breaking study, self-awareness and business results can now be linked. After measuring self-awareness in 6977 professionals at 486 publically traded companies, Korn Ferry Institute reports that “poorly performing companies’ employees had 20% more blind spots than those working at financially strong companies”. In another related survey, Korn Ferry reports that a recent study shows 79% of executives surveyed have at least one blind spot.

Seems convincing enough although a survey recently published in Chief Executive shows that only 26% of CEOs rank self-awareness as a top 10 skill needed for effective leadership. Perhaps it is taken as a given or perhaps the amount of feedback received is minimal.

How noble and good everyone could be if, every evening before falling asleep, they were to recall to their minds the events of the whole day and consider exactly what has been good and bad. Then without realizing it, you try to improve yourself at the start of each new day.
—Anne Frank, German author and holocaust victim

What else might get in the way?

  • Unsure about how to get feedback
  • Have difficulty reading others’ reactions
  • Not overly concerned with what others think
  • Don’t make time for personal reflection
  • Uncomfortable with possible development areas

Whatever might cause you to demonstrate less self-awareness, all of these can be addressed if you desire to do so.

To grow your self awareness, consider the following suggestions:

  • Approach every interaction as a way to self-check – assess your approach and what worked along with what you could have done differently
  • Keep a learning journal – keep track of issues and opportunities and how you responded, how you used your strengths, situations that triggered strong emotions and why you responded the way you did
  • Challenge your perception of your skills through a stretch assignment – step out of your comfort zone
  • Work on a rocky relationship – focus on what you have contributed to the situation
  • Solicit feedback – ask different groups/individuals for specific feedback to get a broad perspective
  • Do not argue with feedback received; listen and accept it for what it is – practice just taking it in!
  • Take a self-assessment and/or participate in a 360⁰ multi-rater assessment
  • Disclose more – research indicates that people’s perceptions of you improve when you simply acknowledge that you are looking to develop – let your inside out more often
  • Find a mentor – someone who is interested in your future success
  • Put time in your calendar to reflect
  • Practice pausing – rather than responding with a response that may not serve you or others, practice delaying…make notes, ask a question and listen, go get a cup of coffee, visualize yourself in a calm setting, etc.

The 2012 Hay Group Study

Between 4-19% of 17,000 leaders were rated as being perceptive in self-awareness.

How well people can sense their heartbeats has, in fact,
become a standard way to measure their self-awareness.

—Daniel Goleman, The Focused Leader in Harvard Business Review, December 2013.