Self-Awareness for Leaders: Why It Can Be Challenging

Apr 16, 2024 | News

An extensive study by Tasha Eurich led her to conclude that “self-awareness is the most important skill to be successful in the 21st century at work.” This is particularly true for successful leadership.

Being self-aware as a leader means having a conscious understanding of your character, behaviours and motives, and how these things impact your leadership abilities. It is about having a clear understanding of the impact you are having on the people around you, and a better chance of understanding any biases you may not realise you have.

Self-aware leaders are in a better position to judge and adjust their leadership style as necessary. They are more aware of the things they do well, and the things they need to develop or delegate. Being honest about one’s own shortcomings helps build a culture of trust and invites self-exploration. Modelling these behaviours demonstrates to your team that it’s OK to not know everything, it’s OK to ask for help, and it’s OK to make mistakes. All of which makes for a more effective, productive and happier team.

Despite the importance of self-awareness in leaders, it does not always follow that people in positions of leadership are highly self-aware!

Why are some leaders less self-aware?

Studies have shown that there is often an inverse relationship between power and self-awareness. The higher up in an organisation you are, the less self-aware you are likely to be. More experienced leaders are less accurate in assessing their leadership effectiveness compared to their less experienced colleagues.

Researchers have identified several possible reasons for this:

  • One theory is that people do not always learn from experience. In fact, experience can lead to a false sense of confidence. The more power a leader holds, the more likely they are to overestimate their skills and competencies (including traits like empathy, trustworthiness and leadership performance) compared to others’ perceptions.

Seeing ourselves as highly experienced can make us overconfident about our levels of self-knowledge and prevent us from seeking evidence and questioning our assumptions. Willingness to listen shrinks as one’s own perception of self-knowledge grows.

  • Another possible explanation is that managers often have so much on their plate, with expectations of them coming from both above and below, that they don’t have the time or capacity to pay attention to themselves. Their own self-awareness suffers as a result.
  • Conversely, some leaders are overly self-conscious and spend too much time analysing themselves. But if they are constantly focused on how other people see them (external self-awareness), they are not focused on what matters to them (internal self-awareness). To be fully self-aware, both internal and external self-awareness need to play their part. Leaders need to be able to recognise their own values to improve their self-awareness and become happier and better leaders.
  • Senior leaders have fewer people above them to give candid feedback. They may therefore be missing vital cues to develop their external self-awareness – their understanding of how others see and experience them.
  • The more power a leader wields, the less comfortable colleagues will be with giving them the constructive and honest feedback essential for building external self-awareness. Team members may be worried about the potential for honest feedback of their leader harming their career progression.
  • Some leaders surround themselves with “yes people” who agree with them externally, whether they actually agree with them or not. They are unwilling to put tough truths on the table, leaving the leader to lose touch with reality.

Regardless of the reason behind a particular leader’s lack of self-awareness, it does not make them a bad person! I just means that they have to be willing to actively work on improving their self-awareness to become a better leader.

How to improve your self-awareness as a leader

There are many tools and techniques that can be used to help improve your self-awareness. Here are a handful that we consider particularly suited to leaders:

  • Work on building your internal self-awareness (how well you know yourself). Understanding your personality type by using psychometric tools can be a good place to start. There are free online tools, but they are generally best used with a trained coach who can help you interpret the results.

     

  • Seek critical feedback from all levels to improve your external self-awareness. 360 reviews of leadership effectiveness can be hugely helpful, but it’s important to be willing to listen to and act on any feedback.
  • Practice conducting a pre-mortem when dealing with a tricky situation. Imagine a disastrous outcome to the situation and then write a history of the disaster. This can help you see some of the wrong assumptions you may be making
  • Question strong reactions to people and events by asking what, not why. For example, if you receive negative feedback from a team member, rather than asking yourself “why would they say that?” instead ask yourself “what could I have done differently to improve that feedback?” Asking why can lead to answers that feel right, but contain a lot of subconscious bias. Asking why can also lead you to focus on the negatives. Asking what, on the other hand, helps formulate a positive plan of action instead.
  • Work on your own personal development. Whether this is training to fill a knowledge gap, or coaching to help improve your self-awareness, not only will this be good for you, but it will also send positive cues to the rest of your team.

As you develop your own self-awareness, it may be good to also turn your attention to supporting your team to explore their levels of self-awareness. The benefits of becoming more self-aware are far-reaching in both a personal and professional context. Investing in this area WILL pay dividends.

Ready to explore your own self-awareness and become a better leader? Contact us to find out how we can help.

Source: https://hbr.org/podcast/2018/06/how-to-become-more-self-aware