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Is Self-Awareness at Work a Rare Quality?

Learning & Development 25th January 2024

We all think we’re self-aware. Especially when it comes to the workplace, with all the emphasis on individuals and their performance and impact. The more senior and experienced people are, the greater the confidence that self-reflection is just there, a part of their management toolkit.

It’s important because self-awareness has been linked to stronger creative, problem-solving and communication skills, as well as higher levels of personal fulfilment. Businesses with more self-aware leaders tend to be more profitable, says research.

Genuine Self-Awareness is Rare

But, self-awareness is a rare quality claims Tasha Eurich, organisational psychologist. In studies involving around 5,000 participants — backed up by work on understanding exactly what self-awareness really is and why we need it — Dr Eurich found that only 10%–15% of people actually fitted the criteria for genuine self-awareness.

The work by Eurich highlights some of the challenges. For example, how there are two types of self-awareness:

Internal self-awareness: Our values and aspirations and how we fit into the work environment we’re in; alongside our everyday reactions, typical thoughts, feelings and behaviours and how this impacts on other people

External self-awareness: An understanding of how other people view all of those values and behaviours in us from their perspectives. This is important because an appreciation of how other people see us encourages more empathy, trust and better relationships.

Eurich also suggests that people who have high levels of internal self-awareness often score low on the external, and vice-versa. Being in a senior position or just highly experienced doesn’t help. If anything it leads to over-confidence and stops managers from bothering to make an effort to understand. Another problem is over-thinking and over-analysis, leading in the end to worse levels of self-awareness. In other words, we worry and fret and end up focusing on the negative.

What is Self-Awareness?

This kind of research, though, is simplistic. It might be eye-catching, but it doesn’t necessarily help when it comes to actual behaviours and performance at work.

First of all, we need to be clear about what self-awareness really is. Nobody is perfectly self-aware — and everybody is self-aware to some degree, depending on personality and circumstances. It’s a scale that ebbs and flows, and there are skills that can be encouraged and developed to make sure there’s self-awareness when it matters most.

A large part of any situation is you, and you need to have self awareness to be aware of the situation. When you pay attention to what is happening within you, you become more aware of your own thoughts, emotions and feelings. Self-awareness provides you with choices. Self-management — managing your thoughts, emotions and feelings to enhance your performance and optimise interpersonal communication — is the capacity to make the right choices for the situation.

It can enhance connection with other people, minimise stress and improve feelings of control and wellbeing. Having more choices about how you respond enables you to stay connected rather than disconnect, respond rather than react and empathise rather than judge (as well as accept the fact that it’s just human nature that sometimes you will disconnect, react and judge).

In other words, all external relationships begin with the relationship you have with yourself so this relationship also needs to be a dynamic one, an active, in-motion relationship. Some simple ways to think about and improve self-awareness include:

1. Getting into the habit of thinking about the ‘what’ rather than the ‘why’

Asking why mostly just leads to a negative cycle: I’m bad-tempered, I’m not good with people, I’m not good at my job. What’s far more valuable is thinking about what happened, what the effect on others was, and what you could have done differently. In other words, learning from experience and moving forward.

2. Encourage opinions and feedback from managers and colleagues around you

Having more opportunities to understand your reactions to feedback of different kinds; and to become more resilient.

3. Make use of ‘pull feedback’

Most feedback in organisations is push, 1-1’s, appraisals etc and can often be resisted or dreaded. 360 feedback is theoretically pull but not really. More valuable is pull feedback, feedback that the receiver seeks out and asks for.

4. Regularly taking a moment to test your self-awareness, your ability to be honest and to deal with negatives in a constructive, healthy way

Just by asking questions of yourself about what’s happening at work, in your relationships with people, and what this tells you about what’s working and what might need to change.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio