The Power of Self-awareness in Personal and Leadership Development
(Image source: bogolovan.com)
(Notes: The details of the coaching examples provided in this blog are composites based on real situations. Some names may have been altered to respect the confidentiality of my clients.)
“The most important relationship we have is the one with ourselves,
the most important journey we take is one of self-discovery.”
“I am not living consciously if my consciousness is used for everything
- Nathaniel Branden
James and Scarlet are newly married. Recently, James felt quite stressful at work. He asked Scarlet to join him for a walk after work. Without a second thought, Scarlet put aside her own plan and joined James. They had dinner at one of their favorite restaurants before hopping on a ferry to the other side of the city, where they had made some cherished memories together. As they strolled along, chatting and laughing, James found himself feeling lighter, as though his worries had been lifted off his shoulders. He couldn't help but feel grateful for Scarlet's warm and loving presence by his side. Scarlet, on the other hand, felt proud of herself being a caring and supportive wife.
As they walked, they found themselves near a dazzling shopping mall, beneath which is Scarlet’s old company office. James was excited to grab a drink in the mall, while Scarlet hesitated. She suggested, “I heard there’s a very nice new park nearby. Why don’t we explore that tonight?” Feeling somewhat disappointed, James reluctantly agreed. Since neither of them have been in this area for years, they got lost on their way to the park. After wandering around aimlessly for a while, James admitted that he was tired and wanted to go home. But just as they were about to turn back, Scarlet suddenly became emotional. "We're so close to the park," she pleaded. "I've always wanted to visit it. Who knows when we'll have the chance again?" Despite James' objections, Scarlet's desire to visit the park was too strong to ignore. They continued their search until James finally snapped, feeling like their evening had been ruined. "I thought tonight was great because of your company," he complained. "But now, all the good feelings are gone because you're so attached to this park." In the end, they canceled their plans and headed home, both feeling a sense of regret over the way the evening had turned out.
In this story, had Scarlet been aware that her resistance to visiting the shopping mall was about her fear of running into her old colleagues and being reminded of her past, she could have expressed it to James. Then they could have found an alternative where James could still enjoy a drink and Scarlet could feel at ease. Similarly, if James had been more aware of his emotion and needs, he could have communicated them to Scarlet that what he really wanted was to spend time with her, rather than just getting a drink at the shopping mall. The lack of self-awareness on both sides led to a sense of disconnection. By being more mindful and communicative, they could have created more cherished memories of being with each other.
Do you know what you are feeling at any particular moment? Do you recognize the impulses from which your actions spring? Do you know what needs or desires you may be trying to satisfy? … These are the kind of questions that a high level of self-awareness entails.
In a research study comprising of 10 separate investigations with nearly 5,000 participants, psychologist Tasha Eurich and her team discovered that despite most people believe they possess self-awareness, it is a truly rare quality. The study estimates that only 10%–15% of the people they studied actually fit the criteria for being self-aware.
“Highly self-aware people score high on both internal and external self-awareness and are actively focused on balancing the scale.”
- Tasha Eurich
According to the same study, there are two types of self-awareness: internal self-awareness and external self-awareness. Internal self-awareness represents how well we recognize and understand our own thoughts, feelings, behaviors, identity, purpose, values, goals, etc. External self-awareness means how well we understand how others view us, in terms of those factors listed above. Tasha and her team found that highly self-aware people score high on both internal and external self-awareness and are actively focused on balancing the scale.
Various research studies have shown that self-awareness allows us to make sounder decisions, better use our strengths and potential, and thus solve problems more effectively. Psychologist Daniel Goleman created one of the most popular models of Emotional Intelligence, of which self-awareness is a key component. Bill George, a professor at Harvard Business School, and former CEO of Medtronic said self-awareness is the starting point of leadership. Other research studies suggest that external self-awareness helps leaders create a working environment where team members better collaborate with everyone.
Self-awareness is the starting point of leadership.
However, the most impactful comment about the importance of self-awareness I’ve seen is from a Harvard Business Review article, To Improve Your Team, First Work on Yourself:
When we don’t understand ourselves, we are more likely to succumb to the fundamental attribution error of believing that the behaviors of others are the result of negative intent or character (“he was late because he does not care”) and believing that our own behaviors
are caused by circumstance (“I was late because of traffic”).
- Jennifer Porter
Working as a life coach and executive coach, I cannot count how many times I have heard leaders shared their frustration over their team using phrases such as:
“He’s just not interested in putting enough effort.”
“They are too lazy.”
“These senior employees are no longer motivated to do their best.”
“They only care about their salary.”
“He’s got an issue with his character or personality.”
Through coaching conversations, these leaders usually come to realize new ways of looking at their team’s behaviors and devise better ways to communicate and engage with different team members. Most importantly, they come to see how their lack of understanding about themselves and human behavior leads to disconnection with their team members, negatively impacting their leadership effectiveness.
Wilson, one of my coaching clients, was recently transferred to a leadership role where he would be leading a national team of customer service. After spending twenty years with the same company, he found it challenging to manage senior team members who had also served the company for many years. When one of those team members complained about not being treated fairly despite their years of service, Wilson's initial reaction was dismissive, telling them to "cheer up" and "look on the bright side." Instead of being more optimistic as Wilson suggested, those members became even more resentful and demotivated. During coaching conversations, Wilson described them as "ungrateful," "lazy," "picky," and "money-driven."
If Wilson had taken the time to examine his own feelings about not feeling seen or appreciated during his earlier years with the company, he might have been better equipped to understand his senior team members' perspectives and respond in a way that made them feel heard and understood. By doing so, Wilson could have strengthened his bond with his team, rather than coming across as someone who simply wanted to "fix" them.
Through coaching, Wilson came to realize the impact of his dismissive response and decided to take his team's perspective into account. As a result, he was seen as "one of them" by his senior members, which further strengthened their relationship.
When we are self-aware, understanding ourselves and
the impact of our choices and behaviors, we are more resourceful in
building stronger relationships and communicating effectively.
Speaking of cultivating self-awareness, many of you may think of the ability of introspection: reflecting to examine the causes of our feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. For many years I firmly believe that introspection improves self-awareness. However, research shows that it is not always the case. The problem with introspection isn’t that it is categorically ineffective — it’s that most people are doing it incorrectly. To understand this, let’s see some examples.
Felix is a hard-working and humble leader in a global company. While he was new to the concept of coaching, he was eager to explore his behaviors and patterns through our coaching conversations. As a direct result of our coaching, he observed substantial improvement in his leadership capabilities, interpersonal skills and overall confidence as a leader. However, one day Felix expressed that he struggled with coaching himself, which he referred to as self-reflection. He didn’t understand why he didn’t enjoy asking himself questions. Upon closer examination, we discovered that one significant difference between his questions and mine was that he tended to ask “why” or “why not” questions.
For instance, when he felt that a meeting he had organized did not go well. He would ask himself, “why didn’t I express my true thoughts?” or “why haven’t I mastered this skill by now?” The series of “why” questions Felix asked himself not only brought him an unpleasant experience most of the time, but they also often led him to faulty conclusions about himself, such as “I am not cut out for leadership.”
Let’s look at Kelly’s example of a similar experience.
Having experienced the powerful though-provoking questions in coaching, Kelly expressed that she “wanted” to engage in more self-reflection, take a pause during a week and reflect on her past week. However, I noticed that during our coaching conversations, she often began with the same narrative:” I wish I could have done more self-reflection last week, but I failed …” I shared my observation by saying:” when you think of ‘self-reflection’ as a task, what comes to your mind?” After a long pause, Kelly disclosed that the idea of self-reflection reminds her of her childhood experiences. She recounted how her mother and stepfather would ask her to reflect on why she did what I did and apologize to her stepfather when he was angry. Most of the times, she had no idea where she went wrong, but she felt forced to come up with something.
Like Felix, Kelly associated self-reflection with finding faults within herself, which created significant resistance to engage in the activity. The questions she typically asked herself would start with “why” or “why not”, triggering negative feelings and thoughts.
Introspection Doesn’t Always Improve Self-Awareness
So, is there a better way to ask reflective questions than using “why”? Marion Franklin, a well-known master coach, suggests that we use “What” questions whenever possible in coaching. When I first read this in her book, The Heart of Laser Focused Coaching, I felt it was exaggerated. However, after hundreds of hours of practicing coaching conversations using “What” questions, I noticed the difference. “What” questions sound neutral, open, and future-focused, preventing the mind from solely dwelling on the past stories and promoting forward momentum.
For example, instead of ruminating on his unpleasant meeting experience, Felix could have asked, “what would a wise person do now?” This question immediately shifts the focus from negative self-talk to he can do to make a change. Similarly, in Kelly’s case, instead of following the thought pattern of “why haven’t I done self-reflection again this week?” and concluding that she can never take a pause and reflect, Kelly benefited from a “What” question, “what comes to your mind when you think of self-reflection?”
Appropriate introspection improves internal self-awareness. However, as we discussed, truly self-aware people achieve a high level in both internal and external self-awareness. Since external self-awareness represents how well we understand the impact of our behaviors and choices and how others view us, a multi-dimensional element is a crucial addiction to your practice of cultivating self-awareness. It is easy to assume that high internal self-awareness will lead to high external self-awareness, or vice versa, but research shows that this is not always the case.
Leaders must actively work on both seeing themselves clearly and
getting feedback to understand how others see them.
In this aspect, coaching is a powerful way with a multi-dimensional element. A coach’s role is helping raise people’s both internal and externa self-awareness. An impartial, objective voice of the coach reflects to clients the things that they may not get from other channels.
Janice expressed her overall satisfaction with her team’s performance, but she did have concern about one team member’s communication style. During our coaching conversation, she shared her frustration over this team member’s lack of sensitivity toward other team members. Janice proceeded to give examples on how she tried to set a good role model for this team member. It became clear to me that Janice seemed to believe that the only way to make this team member aware of her insensitivity was through demonstration.
I reflected to Janice with a neutral tone, “It sounds like there’s an expectation that this team member should pick up some lessons from seeing your role modelling. What if her insensitivity is getting in the way of picking up those signals?” Hearing this, Janice immediately laughed and said, ”how ironic! I didn’t realize that I had that expectation, but now that you said it, it feels so true. Well, I could give her direct feedback instead of expecting her to pick up on signals.”
In this situation, coach’s direct communication of what had been observed immediately brought awareness to Janice about her long-held belief (internal self-awareness): as long as she role modelled in front of her team, they would know what she expected from them and make a change. The coach’s observation also helped Janice gain external self-awareness by seeing the limitation of her approach and the need for a more direct feedback approach.
A skilled coach does not focus on helping clients to solve their immediate problems right away. Instead, they prioritize cultivating the client’s focus on their existing patterns and themes of feelings, thoughts and behaviors that are either helpful or hindering to achieving their goals. In other words, coaching focuses on the person, not the problem. The underlying assumption is that when clients are highly self-aware, they become more creative in solving their own problems or even preventing them from occurring in the first place.
Through my personal experience and those of my clients, I have witnessed numerous rewards that increased self-awareness can bring. Each of us can benefit from cultivating our self-awareness, from individual happiness to interpersonal communication and leadership. The key is that we adopt effective approaches and do not rely on a single approach. The journey to self-awareness is exciting because with every increase of self-knowledge, I feel better use of my strengths and potential.
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Lucy Qian is an Executive and Life Coach, accredited as a Professional Certified Coach (PCC) through the International Coach Federation (ICF). Her coaching service helps people in their resilience towards the vision that they wish to get to, especially in environments that may not be supportive. Lucy is also currently translating the renowned coaching book, The Heart of Laser-Focused Coaching, to Chinese, making it accessible to a wider audience.