The Extraordinary Benefits of Leadership Self-Awareness

January 3, 2023 Doug Glener

Self-awareness may seem like an odd skill for a leader to cultivate. After all, what does it have to do with crushing goals? But research shows that self-awareness has more benefits than you might imagine.

Leaders who are self-aware:

  • Make smarter decisions
  • Are more creative
  • Are more confident
  • Have better relationships

Also, not surprisingly, self-aware leaders get more promotions. This all leads to a simple conclusion: building self-awareness is one of the smartest things you can do as a leader.

The Self-Awareness Trap

Just about everyone believes they are self-aware. But it’s a rare quality, even in leaders. Harvard Business Review says just 10% of all leaders are self-aware. Gender plays a role: Some 19% of women executives exhibited self-awareness, compared with only 4% of male executives.

The good news is that self-awareness can be cultivated. It's not like we have a fixed amount. We can learn to see ourselves and our world more objectively and become a more successful leader—and human.

What Self-Awareness Is

There are many definitions of self-awareness. Here’s one that satisfies: “Self-awareness is the ability to see yourself clearly and objectively through reflection and introspection.”

Taking a deeper dive, researchers divide self-awareness into two parts:

  1. Internal self-awareness: the amount of objectivity we have when we consider our values, aspirations, reactions to others, desires, strengths, weaknesses, and effect on others.
  2. External self-awareness: our understanding of how other people view us.

Here are five ways to increase your self-awareness.

Keep a Trigger Journal

Every time you get upset, write down what happened in a journal. Also note what might have been the cause—a missed deadline, an interaction with a colleague, a challenge at home.

Over time, a pattern will emerge. You’ll see what upsets you. This will let you prepare for difficult situations and respond in a balanced manner. For example, you can visualize how you want to act and what you’ll say if you are triggered. You can also use relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, before a challenging encounter.

Intellectual Humility

It’s easy for leaders to believe they have all the answers to workplace challenges. But this is impossible. Here’s just one piece of evidence: The amount of information humans have accumulated doubles every day. This exponential increase makes it impossible for anyone to keep up to date in this constantly changing world.

Intellectual humility means accepting the truth: we don’t know everything. Even if we did have the answers today, they would likely be outdated by tomorrow. The solution is to admit that our assumptions may be wrong and a colleague may have a better answer.

A best practice of intellectual humility is to have an insatiable curiosity to learn more—to recognize there is something new to be known. It’s the best way to thrive in a world overflowing with information.

Meditate

Meditation promotes self-awareness—not according to just one study, but to a number of them. Harvard Medical School found that meditation increases self-awareness along with compassion, focus, and introspection.

Life is stressful. We all could use a little meditation. Its other benefits include reduced stress and anxiety; improved memory and attention; better quality of sleep; control of pain; and decreased blood pressure.

A Zen proverb provides an interesting perspective about the importance of meditation: “If you don’t have time to meditate for an hour every day, meditate for two hours.” Meaning the less time you think you have for it, the more you need it. And while two hours a day might be unrealistic for most people, research shows that even 13 minutes a day is beneficial.

Know Your Biases

To be alive is to have biases. It's part of how the brain operates and it serves an essential purpose. Our biases become a problem when we see things not as they are in reality but as they are when filtered through our prejudices. We see a distorted version of reality that we take to be the truth.

This happens all the time—especially in the workplace. For example, we unknowingly give preferential treatment to someone who is like us (affinity bias) or we disregard information that contradicts our beliefs (confirmation bias). These blind spots can cause us to make major errors and hurt people.

Here are a few common workplace biases:

  • Affinity bias: Giving preferential treatment to people who are like you.
  • Ageism: Being biased against people who are older.
  • Attentional bias: Paying attention to a handful of facts while simultaneously ignoring others.
  • Beauty bias: Being favorably biased toward people we see as beautiful.
  • Confirmation bias: Looking for information that supports our point of view and disregarding everything else.
  • Gender bias: Being biased against people of a certain gender.
  • Height bias: Being favorably biased toward those who are tall.
  • Proximity bias: Favoring people who are physically closer while ignoring those who are farther away.
  • Weight bias: Favoring or disfavoring people based on their weight.

There are more than 100 types of biases. It's worthwhile for us all to learn more about them and see which ones might be affecting the way we act.

Take a 360

Learning what other people really think about you is one of the best ways to become self-aware. Don't assume you know the answers (a bias called the overconfidence effect).

A multi-rater 360 is an extremely effective way to learn how others perceive you. Raters submit answers anonymously and responses are pooled together. This allows people to give honest feedback without fear of being discovered.

The results of a 360 can give you a new perspective on yourself, which can help you improve your self-awareness.

Your Self-Aware Future

Our 2023 Trends Report found that self-awareness is one of the top leadership skills needed in 2023. This comes from 700 leadership, learning, and talent development professionals. So, along with its other benefits, developing your self-awareness is an investment in your professional future.

Becoming more self-aware will improve all areas of your life. To quote the great psychoanalyst Carl Jung: “Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.”

About the Author

Doug Glener

Doug Glener is the senior copywriter at The Ken Blanchard Companies®. He earned a BA in English from Vassar College, is the author of two books, and has written for Harvard Business School, Training Magazine, Chief Learning Officer, The Financial Times, The United Way, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, The Holocaust Museum, The Norwegian Tourist Board, Michael Jackson, and many other renowned individuals and organizations.

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