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As the study of human behavior and what constitutes good leadership has been enriched in recent years and the focus has turned inward toward emotional intelligence, empathy, compassion and good character. A fundamental component of all these elements is self-awareness. What it is, why it’s important and how to improve it.

A study conducted by Julia Carden, Rebecca J. Jones and Jonathan Passmore, published in the Journal of Management Education, titled “Defining Self-Awareness in the Context of Adult Development: A Systematic Literature Review,” argue that self-awareness has often been confused with self-consciousness and self-knowledge, and offer this definition for self-awareness: “Self-awareness consists of a range of components, which can be developed through focus, evaluation and feedback, and provides an individual with an awareness of their internal state (emotions, cognitions, physiological responses), that drives their behaviors (beliefs, values and motivations) and an awareness of how this impacts and influences others.”

The researchers examined all the available research on the topic of self-awareness, which have implications for leaders in organizations and observed the following:

  • High self-awareness, claimed to lead to better decision making, is linked to team performance and authentic leadership.
  • People with high levels of self-awareness are more likely to be promoted and are more effective leaders.
  • A survey of the Stanford Business School Business Advisory Council rated self-awareness as the most important trait that leaders require.
  •  Cognitive self-awareness emphasizes an individual’s understanding of one’s own perception, and thinking.
  •  Self-awareness is both conscious and unconscious.
  • Self-awareness is also related to being sensitive to the feelings of others, and one’s impact on others.
  • Self-awareness has two dimensions; first, subjective self-awareness, which is a state of consciousness where attention is focused on events external to the person, and second, objective self-awareness, which is focused exclusively upon the self.
  • Research has indicated that teaching self-awareness on a MBA program leads to enhancing students’ reflection about their leadership potential, with students demonstrating how increased self-awareness led to more effective teamwork.
  • Self-awareness is connected to self-efficacy and emotional intelligence, both of which are viewed as a route to increased leadership effectiveness .
  • As self-awareness can be taught and developed. This is based on the proposition that self-awareness and authentic leadership can be developed through “practical reflexivity,” which is described as a questioning of one’s self in the moment of action or retrospectively. Subsequent development is through self-observation, and through working with others in groups.

The researchers identified seven components to self-awareness by examining all the research literature:

First, beliefs and values. Beliefs refer to personal attitudes about oneself and the surrounding world, whereas values refer to the things an individual attaches importance to. Beliefs and values are components which individuals are required to explore introspectively in order to understand drivers for behavior and personal reactions.

Second, internal mental state. This includes the subcomponents of feelings and emotions and thoughts and cognitions. Feelings and emotions were grouped together as one subcomponent as emotion is an internal mental state from which feelings are generated, with feelings providing the description of an emotional mental state.

Several researchers referred to thoughts as a component of self-awareness.This suggests that not only does an individual need an overall awareness of their thoughts to be self-aware, they also need an “in the moment” awareness.

Third, physical sensations. This is referred to as sensations or physiological responses as a reaction in the body, for example “a fluttering of the heart”.

Fourth, personality traits. This is about “understanding and knowing” one’s personality traits. Therefore, in this context, the personality traits identifies as personal self-resources, and this would refer to an awareness of character traits, along with an “assessment of strengths and weaknesses.”

Fifth, motivations. The motivations component can be described as the personal drivers or reasons for behaving in a particular way which means one’s influence on others.

The sixth component, behaviors. This refers to the actions that others see or hear individuals displaying, and they were therefore categorized as an interpersonal component as they are externally visible, and indeed might affect others in terms of how they might be interpreted by others.

The seventh component, an awareness of how one is perceived by others. Some authors specifically included the requirement for “feedback from others.”

The Bigger Picture

In my book, I Know Myself and Neither Do You, I examine in detail the importance of self-awareness as a cornerstone for good leadership.

In 1972, psychologists Shelley Duval and Robert Wicklund published their theory of self-awareness, which argued when we focus our attention on ourselves, we evaluate and compare our current behavior to our internal standards and values. We become self-conscious as objective evaluators of ourselves.” Duval and Wicklund believe self-awareness was a major mechanism of self-control.

In his paper, “How Self-Awareness Impacts Your Work, “ Daniel Goleman argues the ability to monitor our emotions and thoughts from moment to moment is a key to understanding ourselves better, being at peace with whom we are and proactively managing our thoughts, emotions and behaviors.

People who are self-aware act intentionally and consciously rather than reactively or passively, Goleman contends. They also have an elevated sensitivity to the impact their words and behavior have on others.

According to researcher Matthew Lippincott, “Developing Emotional Self-Awareness is a crucial first step in effective leadership because it lays the foundation upon which the other eleven Emotional and Social Intelligence Competencies are built. We can’t develop skills like emotional self-control, empathy, or collaboration unless we are coming from a place of Emotional Self-Awareness. It gives leaders the necessary information about themselves and the effectiveness of their interactions so that they can monitor their emotions and manage their behaviors accordingly.”

Executive coaches often deal with difficult clients, particularly executives who tend to be overconfident and arrogant. It’s been my experience that the most difficult to deal with and coach are the leaders who lack self-awareness. They are either unaware of their inner state and how others view them, or they are aware and they don’t care about other’s perceptions.

Self-aware people recognize about their limitations and strengths, and they will welcome constructive feedback from others. In contrast, people with low self-awareness may respond to critical feedback as a threat or sign of failure.

It’s clear that self-awareness is foundational to emotional intelligence and is critical to our ability to communicate effectively with and build relationships of trust with others. Individuals high in self-awareness are skilled at self-monitoring and in adapting their behaviors to relate effectively with others.

Many important studies show that self-awareness is not a strong trait for many leaders, particularly male leaders. While women in executive-level management positions tend to exhibit more self-awareness than men in the same positions, the overall percentages suggest there is much opportunity for growth in this area. In a study of 17,000 individuals worldwide, the Hay Group Research found that 19 percent of women executives interviewed exhibited self-awareness as compared to 4 percent of their male counterparts.

According to Tasha Eurich, writing in the Harvard Business Review, concludes that “Even though self-awareness — knowing who we are and how we’re seen — is important for job performancecareer success, and leadership effectiveness, it’s in remarkably short supply in today’s workplace. In our nearly five-year research program on the subject, we’ve discovered that although 95% of people think they’re self-aware, only 10 to 15% actually are.” She goes on to say “research suggests that when we see ourselves clearly, we are more confident and more creative. We make sounder decisions, build stronger relationships, and communicate more effectively. We’re less likely to lie, cheat, and steal. We are better workers who get more promotions. And we’re more effective leaders with more satisfied employees and more profitable companies.”

Greg Ashley and Roni Reiter-Palmon published a study in the Journal of Behavioral and Applied Management,which concluded, “A growing body of empirical research suggests that self-awareness is associated with successful leadership.”

One of the effects of increased self-awareness is emotional intensity. Focusing on one’s emotions or physiological responses amplifies one’s subjective experience. Self-awareness also increases accurate access to one’s self-concept. Self-regulation, a tangential component of self-awareness, increases our ability smoothly navigate our social environment through the self-regulation of our emotions, which includes altering one’s behavioral, resisting temptation, changing one’s mood, and selecting a response from various options.

One of the most significant observations that I made over a thirty-plus year period of training, coaching and mentoring leaders in small and large organizations is the degree to which self-awareness was not identified as an important element in providing feedback to leaders and the surprising number of experienced leaders in organizations who both undervalued and lacked sufficient self-awareness.

How self-aware are you. While it’s critical that you get feedback from others about how they see you, an internal self-assessment is also important. The two should be consistent.

A Sample Self-Awareness Assessment

These questions are an effective way to engage in self-awareness.

  1. When you make a mistake to what extent has it tended to disrupt your day?
  2. How difficult has it been for you to accept the fact that you were not as good at something as you thought you were?
  3. How difficult has it been for you to cope with situations that forced you to see yourself in a different way?
  4. How important has it been for you to receive praise from others?
  5. How often do you compare your standards to those of others?
  6. How often do you criticize your own work?
  7. How often do you feel guilty when you have not performed to standards?
  8. How often do you reflect on your performance standards after a failure?
  9. How often do you assess whether you “belong” in a given situation?
  10. How often has an emotional or difficult situation caused you to reassess your strengths and weaknesses?
  11. To what extent do you understand how your characteristics and your experiences have led to you to become the person you are today?
  12. To what extent do you understand how your personal characteristics lead to your behavior in different situations?
  13. To what extent do you use diverse perspectives to arrive at new conclusions about yourself?
  14. To what extent would your friends describe you as someone who knows themselves well?
  15. After a major accomplishment how likely are you to sit back and enjoy the moment?
  16. How often do you know what qualities you bring to a relationship?
  17. To what extent would you say that you consciously think about the ways your thoughts and emotions influence your behavior?
  18. How likely are your friends to describe you as introspective or reflective?
  19. How often do you enjoy time alone because it allows you to reflect on your day’s activities?
  20. How often do you ponder over how to improve yourself from knowledge of previous experiences?
  21. How often find yourself searching internally for explanations of your behavior and emotions?
  22. How frequently have the outcomes of your behavior in a given situation caused you to reach an “a-ha” moment about yourself?
  23. Relative to your friends, how much time do you spend trying to understand yourself?