Looking past pop-psychology to develop true self-awareness.

“Know thyself” has stood the test of time as a core value to be upheld, from Ancient Greece to Wall Street. While you likely agree it’s important to know yourself, you also might brush it off as trite or cliche. You probably think you have a pretty good sense of who you are. How could you not? After all, you’ve been “you” your whole life. It turns out, there’s more to “knowing thyself” than meets the eye.

What is self-awareness?

Oxford defines self-awareness as “conscious knowledge of one’s own character, feelings, motives, and desires.” Too often, we go through life on auto-pilot. We follow the motions without really being aware of what’s going on around us, and even less so of what’s going on within us. Paying attention to those unique aspects of our identity, beliefs, assumptions, and behavior patterns allows us to be more intentional with our actions. 

These parts of ourselves are usually taken for granted. We all make assumptions, but too often we’re not aware that we’ve made them. They become a lens through which we see and evaluate life, unintentionally coloring our perspective. Our beliefs often occur to us as “the way things are,” as though they were innate, objective qualities of the world around us. We aren’t aware of how much of that is projection; we don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are. 

On top of this worldview which forms the stage of our lives, we play our role–following typical behavior patterns because “that’s the kind of person I am.” In this way, we confuse what we do with who we are. This can lead to us getting stuck playing an old part despite our best efforts at change because it’s become intertwined with whom we think of ourselves as, or our identity.

When’s the last time that you’ve put these ideas under a microscope and studied them? My invitation is that you make it a regular practice to ask yourself:

What assumptions am I making?

What else is possible?

What are my beliefs about this situation?

Are they absolutely true?

What is my motivation for doing this?

Who is the type of person I want to become? 

This is a good starting point in becoming more aware of who you are–but it’s also missing a crucial piece. You can spend your whole life meditating in a cave in the pursuit of self-discovery but that won’t do you a whole lot of good in the “real world.” If you’re reading this, that’s probably where you’re choosing to play. 

How that holds you back

For those of us who are choosing to be leaders–declaring a powerful mission and working with others to create a future that wouldn’t happen on its own–thinking of self-awareness in this way will stunt your growth and limit your effectiveness. It’s likely that you’ll find yourself butting heads with colleagues at work or getting employees who do the bare minimum to go along. You might find yourself struggling to create effective team alignment. At worst, you’ll have people who are actively disengaged and working against you. 

A more effective approach

So, what’s missing from this definition? Self-awareness doesn’t end with you–it only begins with you. What’s missing is the impact you have on other people. As leaders, our job is to motivate others and help them be their best, and we’re responsible for the people we lead. That means that awareness of yourself is a starting point to understanding how you affect others. 

“If you want to be an effective leader, you have to develop your self-awareness in a way that includes your interpersonal impact.”

An important distinction here is that it’s not just about your intentions and how you try to lead others; I trust that you mean well. The problem is that despite our best intentions, we often end up having unintended consequences and a negative impact on others. If we’re blind to this aspect of self-awareness, we can be like a bull in a china shop, bruising people left and right without even noticing–much less intending to.  

How do you develop self-awareness?

There are lots of different ways to get a better understanding of who you are, how you show up in the world, and the impact that you have as a leader. Here are a few to get you started, and I’d love for you to tell me what I missed in the comments below or in a message.

  1. Working with a coach. There’s truly no better way of learning about yourself than in a committed developmental relationship with a leader who is “off the court” of your life, and therefore able to provide you with an objective perspective. A certified coach will help you improve your performance while discovering who you are (and if they aren’t, you should find a different coach–but that’s a different article). 
  2. Key stakeholder interviews. Who are the most important people that you impact? A coach can help you identify a well-rounded group of people and conduct interviews that will allow you to get a truly honest perspective (especially those things that would be difficult to say directly to your face). This will help you understand your strengths and weaknesses as a leader, and most importantly a 360-degree perspective of how you impact the people closest to you.
  3. Asking for feedback directly. Although not quite as effective as stakeholder interviews, this is still a crucial piece of the puzzle! Working with a coach should be a supplement, not a replacement for you doing this work yourself. When’s the last time you asked for feedback? Asking for, giving, and receiving feedback are challenging for most people (again a topic for a later article). On either end, we are vulnerable and taking an emotional risk that may be unsafe and likely feels uncomfortable. Research shows that leaders who take that risk and do this well are significantly more effective than their peers. Before you worry about how to do this “perfectly,” just take the first step and ask.
  4. Reflect on your experience. We don’t learn from experience itself, we learn from reflecting on our experience. Just like how going through life on auto-pilot won’t generate awareness, going through these experiences mindlessly won’t either. Coaching, as a reflective-inquiry process has this built-in. I encourage you to take some time to yourself and think about what feedback you’ve gotten recently. Rather than looking for if it’s true or not, try looking for how it might be true. Think about the ways in which you might contribute to other people having that perception of you. And perhaps most importantly, think about who you are committed to being, and what you are committed to doing. This will help guide your decisions as to what, if anything, you change as a result of this feedback.

What now?

What would be possible for you as a leader if you were to develop your self-awareness in a way that included understanding your impact on others?

If you’re curious to learn more or think you might benefit from this type of personal growth, schedule a free 20-minute discovery session. I’ll help you get crystal clear on your next level of success, uncover your biggest developmental opportunities, and create an action plan to get there faster.