We have been coaching leaders for many years now and, time and time again, the issue of self-awareness, in its many guises, has come up as one of the key blocks to successful leadership. From this experience, and from some recent research we have undertaken deep-diving into self-awareness, we can now say for sure that it is this, above all else, that can mean the difference between an effective leader with a thriving, engaged team and a leader who is missing the mark on their own and their team’s potential. Excellent self-awareness is a key differentiator in business. The tricky thing though is that the more senior people become the more they are likely to suffer from not knowing themselves fully – there is an inverse relationship between power and self-awareness. Many of the leaders we work with seem to recognise what it is that they need to do differently but they can’t or won’t make the change. So what exactly do we mean by self-awareness, why is it a critical strength and how can we go about knowing ourselves (and each other) better?
Research suggests that only about 15% of leaders have great self-awareness, despite 85-90% believing they do.
We see self-awareness existing at three distinct but interactive levels:
1. Me – Internal self-awareness
This is what we call our ‘inner theatre’. It is our awareness of our personality, our values and habits, our needs and emotions and our understanding of our reactions and what triggers us. Internal self-awareness is key because it inoculates us against stress, it fuels better decision-making and it is highly-correlated with greater work and life satisfaction and happiness.
2. Me and you – External self-awareness
This is the understanding of how we impact others, and of how they view and experience us. It is the two-way interplay between me and you – and it changes depending on who the other person is. It is understanding how I make you feel and how you make me feel (valued, or not good enough, inspired or demoralised?) and leads us to ask what we can do to make changes and improve those experiences. External self-awareness is a key component of emotional intelligence (EQ) - our ability to show empathy, vulnerability and compassion, all critical components of good leadership.
3. Us – Mutual awareness
This happens when a team is made up of individuals who have both high internal and external self-awareness – each team member fully knows themselves and each other. They know what is good for them individually and what is good for others in the team and, in this scenario, everyone is a winner. This is the ultimate superpower – a psychologically safe, high-trust environment. Think of Formula One pit stops, world-class rugby or the dance of the swans in the ballet, Swan Lake.
If we follow the premise that great teamwork starts with the self-aware individual, perhaps we can conclude that there is, after all, an ‘I’ in ‘team’.
Why is it rare to find an individual with high levels of self-awareness? Well, achieving deeper self-awareness involves work – we like to see it as a kind of personal detective work. As we pursue this work, though, there are obstacles that can throw us off the scent in the process of discovering our true selves:
1. Poor self-interrogation skills
Many of us struggle to ask ourselves helpful questions. We tend to ask why as opposed to what questions, ‘why do I always lose my temper?’ as opposed to ‘what is happening here that I am losing my temper?’ or ‘what can I do differently to help me stay calm?’. Asking ourselves what rather than why can be more reflective, less emotionally-charged and less self-critical – in short, more constructive!
Defences are the unconscious processes which protect us from our most difficult and uncomfortable feelings and frailties. They are helpful because they make us feel safe, protected and in control. But to achieve greater self-awareness we need to understand them better and shift them so that we can develop different behaviours around them. This is perhaps the hardest area of detective work we have to do and it explains why people in senior positions in particular can hear feedback for years but do nothing about it – the change feels too risky. It’s worth identifying and understanding our most common defences:
a. Manic defence
This is the wild flurry of activity that we use to distract the conscious mind from uncomfortable thoughts or feelings. Although it can be productive, when it takes over it makes people too much for others to cope with – they become exhausting to be around and they struggle to inspire others to come on their journey with them. Someone for whom this is a recognisable trait needs to slow down and do it less intensely. People with manic defence need to pause in order to self reflect.
b. Avoidant defence
This is the opposite of the manic defence - it is the tendency to deal with discomfort by procrastinating, avoiding difficult conversations or situations, compartmentalising and being ultra risk-averse. Team members struggle to understand those who have this defence and might typically say about them:
‘She is too nice and as a result we never deal with the difficult issues,’ or, ‘He needs to do more outreach and speak up more.’ So these are the ostriches who stick their heads in the sand, who lack self-awareness because they avoid engaging with who they are and what they need to do. ‘Avoiders’ need to lean in and be more proactive in the space in which they are uncomfortable.
This is the trickiest defence of all to work with because ‘projectors’ blame everyone apart from themselves – they believe that other people are disappointing or are not good enough, not them. Insecurity and a lack of self-confidence underlie this particular defence; those who are frequent projectors have low self-awareness, because they seek to get rid of their difficult feelings rather than explore them. These are the toughest clients because as the coach / therapist you often end up on the wrong end of the projection – being blamed (and, sometimes, even fired), and ultimately they strongly resist seeing what they can do differently.
“I think self-awareness is probably the most important thing towards becoming a champion”
– Billie-Jean King
3. Self-limiting beliefs
Self-limiting beliefs are inaccurate patterns of thinking that are big obstacles to rational self-interrogation. The beliefs, and associated feelings, are very real, but they are in fact imposter beliefs and far from the objective truth.
Easier to spot than defences, self-limiting beliefs tend to zoom in on the negative and disqualify the positive: ‘Yeah, she said I was good with clients but she was just being nice.’ They tend to be all or nothing: ‘I was a total failure in that meeting’. They negatively predict the future: ‘ I will never make Partner’. And they make wild assumptions about what others are thinking: ‘I can see that they think I’m talking nonsense’. Self-limiting beliefs tend to be hard to shift because they are usually old beliefs (probably from a key caregiver) which were internalised early in life and have never been dealt with. But if we can understand the form these come in, then we can challenge them and shift them.
So with all these red herrings to our detective work, it can feel a little overwhelming. How can we make a start at understanding our true selves and changing the bits about ourselves that hold us up?
Firstly, we need to make a habit of taking time every day to self-reflect. Resist the feeling that it is unproductive; don’t underestimate the wisdom and benefits that can be gained from taking this time. Mindfulness can be helpful because it trains you to notice without judgement, but if that doesn’t rock your boat, how about exercise, journaling, drawing or a walk in the park? View yourself with kind, compassionate eyes.
Through neuroscience we have learnt that we have two main levels of operation in the brain. The habit pathways (where your defences and self-limiting beliefs reside) are well-trodden – ingrained thinking and behaviours which almost feel instinctive – but our ‘observer self’ travels along our brain’s super highway, which is where we find our capacity for self-reflection and perspective. We need to ask ourselves the what questions to travel the super highway.
What am I feeling? (This is surprisingly hard, especially if we have become expert compartmentalisers and avoiders.) What am I doing? (Be aware of your distractions, defences, compulsions – if you don’t know what you are doing it is hard to change it.) What are my patterns and repetitions? (Is there a pattern to how my relationships play out?) What can I learn in this situation? (There is always learning to do, especially when we fail or are under intense pressure.) What else? (Keep pushing beyond the first answer you come to.)
When it comes to understanding our external self-awareness it can help to use a coach or therapist. Some of the most significant shifts in our understanding occur in the space between you and me. Working with someone else can help you to see yourself as others see you. They can hold up a mirror to reflect back what you are doing and how this impacts others, and enable you to question whether this is a pattern of behaviour you want to keep. And they can give you feedback. Try to see this as a ‘gift’ to be grateful for, listen actively, be open and non-judgemental. Then make a plan.
Begin by asking yourself what small, incremental step towards change you could experiment with. Don’t be too ambitious.
A perfect example is a client of ours who had received feedback that he was ‘cold and distant’ and that he ‘didn’t listen’. Together, we agreed that he would ask people ‘how do you feel about that?’ when usually he wouldn’t think of asking them anything. It was a small, simple commitment that he made with himself to be actively curious about others, and to learn something about himself in the process. He was amazed by what people told him in response – it opened up a whole new world for him.
So, to turn awareness into active change – ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ – try out a small new way of doing something and keep trying it again and again. It may feel fake, strange and uncomfortable at the beginning but, with practice, it can become a new habit.
And how can we bring about good mutual awareness of both ourselves and each other at team level? When we see it, it really is a superpower. These teams, all with mutually aware ‘I’s (it’s true – there is an ‘I’ in team!), can achieve anything they set out to do – they are more than the sum of their parts. But this is rare. More often than not we see teams that have all the components but where there is no glue of mutual awareness, where the trust and psychological safety that derive from it are missing: ‘we are not a team, we barely know each other’. This hasn’t been helped by the long-held view that not showing vulnerability – or one’s true self – has been associated with high performance or seniority. This needs to be relegated to the history books.
So, hire a coach or work on getting to know each other more deeply, encourage each other (we can start with ourselves) to share personal stories and good news stories. And gradually teams will become more self-aware, people will become aware of how they are each contributing to the team culture and, ultimately, aware enough of each other to show empathy and compassion.
Perhaps the biggest spotlight on self-awareness in all of our lives to date has been our 2020 experiences with Covid-19. We hear from most of our clients that the silver lining of this pandemic has been the opportunity it has provided for greater self-reflection and deeper connection to what’s important to them. There have surely been downsides in losses of day-to-day connections around the water cooler and those moments of seeing people beyond our direct team, but the flip side to this is that we have all learnt more about each other’s lives – children wander into the room during a meeting and cats block the screen. In terms of mutual awareness, teams have had to adapt to working together virtually, and have been surprised at how well they have done. Teams from every industry we work with have been put under enormous pressure but have often found a renewed sense of purpose.
We have all realised we are adaptable, we have grown in consciousness, and we now have a tremendous opportunity to lead our lives, and one another, with greater self-awareness.
At Aesara Partners we have a mantra for change:
I recognise what needs to be different
I realise I want to be different
I choose to be different
I try out being different
I become different.
Let’s be brave! Let’s step off that habit pathway and discover a whole new load of potential within our brilliant, imperfect selves and the brilliant, imperfect people around us.
Nell Montgomery, Founding Partner. Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist (UKCP), Executive Coach.
Dr Susan Mistler, Managing Partner Americas. Clinical Psychologist, Executive Coach.