Why Leaders Need Self-Awareness

bizfluent article image

Often, leaders are measured by the effects they have on others: the way they inspire, the way they define their vision or the way they are able to explain. As it turns out, however, many of the keys to a leader’s strength and success depend on their relationship with their inner self, demonstrated by self-confidence, for example, and self-awareness. It’s critically important for a leader to practice these strengths in order to be able to keep presenting themselves in the best way and to keep evolving their skills throughout their career.

The Art of Self Awareness

Self awareness is the sense of having conscious, personal knowledge of one’s own personality, character and motivations. It’s the ability to perceive yourself as you are — not as you may wish to be, and not as you’re seen, but as you are at your core. It requires a clear perception of strengths, weaknesses and feelings. It’s a state of understanding yourself, without making excuses or exaggerations about motives, beliefs or emotions.

This is an important quality for most individuals to have, because it helps them relate to other people. First, understanding one’s own self gives a better understanding of how people relate to us, how they may see us and reactions they may have to our own behaviors and actions.

Second, understanding one’s own strengths and weaknesses makes it easier to understand those of others; a high level of self-awareness also makes an individual more likely to relate to the emotions, motivations and personalities of others. Third, honest self-awareness is a key part of self-improvement: being able to build on one’s strengths, while working to accept and improve one’s weak spots.

Self Awareness Importance

These are all key skills for a successful leader. A leader who can be honest about themselves, who understands that no one is perfect and that all people work differently, will be more likely to be able to unite individuals into a team with a common goal. They’re more likely to be viewed as trustworthy if they can easily recognize their own personality traits and use them to help make connections with others. And they’ll be able to set a good example by continually working with their own strengths and weaknesses toward self-improvement and self-enrichment.

Self-Awareness in the Workplace

Self-awareness is important in the workplace for employees at every level, from line workers to executives. It allows individuals to understand how they work, why they work that way and the best ways to motivate themselves to be better. It also allows teammates to better relate to and communicate with each other and provides not just self-awareness, but the awareness that other individuals may react completely differently to the same situation — and the understanding that this diversity is a good thing.

SelfAwareness Examples

Employees who lack crucial self-awareness skills are often confused by criticism, are slow to develop themselves and depend on others to provide guidance and make crucial decisions. They’re more likely to end up with performance problems, because they can’t connect their own strengths and weaknesses — the inputs — to what they see in their work — the outputs.

With these employees, there’s always an excuse; it’s always someone else’s fault. They’ll often argue with constructive critique, even from a manager, and refuse to listen to advice and guidance. These employees can be exceptionally problematic because, at a fundamental level, they don’t understand how they are coming across to management and to their teammates.

Employees with good self awareness, however, are more likely to be independent and self-motivated, as well as being great team players and communicators. They’re able to admit to and own their own failures and provide suggestions to avoid future issues, with little prompting. They learn from their own experiences because they understand how their own personalities and approaches have constructed those experiences, for better or for worse. They’re more likely to be connected to their work and they can easily understand why certain approaches work and others may not.

Self Awareness in Leaders

For leaders and managers, a lack of self-awareness comes with an extra price. Leaders who are deluding themselves about their own skill sets and personalities don’t affect just themselves, but the teams that they lead as well. Not only will their own performance suffer, but a team under this sort of leadership will slowly dissolve into toxic, nonproductive behavior.

Leaders who lack this skill are often unaware that they are perceived by others in a way very different from the way they view themselves. These leaders may have been promoted because they seem confident, rather than based on actual competence in leadership. Or they may have assumed, due to an increase in responsibilities, that they are better at their job than they actually are. These sorts of disconnects show the fundamental problems of an unaware leader: They often think they’re better at their job than they really are, and will proceed to make bad decisions based on an inflated sense of self-justification.

Self Awareness Definition in Managers

For example, a manager may consider themselves incredibly open and approachable, only to find that their group is intimidated by their personality and their actions during meetings and therefore have not brought forth department problems. Or, a manager may think they’re setting a mature, professional example, only to find they have a reputation for back-stabbing and gossip. Leaders might think they’re known for good, detailed work no matter how long it takes, only to find that others think they’re too slow. In all of these cases, the disconnect between perception and self identity decays that manager’s ability to lead their group with confidence and skill.

For leaders who want to do their best work, it’s important to set aside time to develop self-awareness tools to avoid these pitfalls. It involves taking time inside one’s own head, but also reaching out to others to determine the differences between one’s identity and one’s reputation.

How to Develop Self-Awareness

While some degree of self-awareness exists within everyone, it’s also a skill set that can be developed and improved. Like all skills, continual practice will help until the motions are automatic. To start, work some of these practices and exercises into daily and weekly routines.

  • Objective self-analysis: Start by learning to look at yourself objectively. This requires us to set aside the masks, walls and fake behaviors we set up for a number of reasons, and evaluate the person underneath. Learn to recognize things that you think you are good at, and things you admit you could be better at. Sometimes writing out these perceptions in a list helps get to the truth about one’s current self.

  • The Why Game: When making a decision, it can help to ask “Why?” repeatedly; if there are three good, concrete reasons to make a certain choice, you’ll be more confident in the choice and better able to direct your actions. It also helps reveal weak points, where our reasons aren’t as defensible to ourselves. 

  • Journaling: Taking 10 to 15 minutes a day to write in a journal — and being consistent about it — is one of the best ways to build self-awareness. Start a practice of writing things you think you did well and things you would have done differently, talk about your day, and do your best to record your feelings. After a month, look back; it’s likely that the action of journaling alone will have built better self-awareness. Also, taking time to write down and track goals, plans and objectives also helps one get a better handle on what needs to be done to meet them.

  • Personality Tests: While all personality tests come with a grain of salt, of course, the more well-known types like the Myers-Briggs or the Predictive Index can help when you may not have the right language initially to describe your own tendencies. There are no right or wrong answers to these tests; the results exist to tell us more about ourselves.

  • Meditation: It may seem an odd suggestion, especially to those in technical fields, but taking a few moments daily to meditate and self-reflect can be a key tool to help build self-awareness. Meditation provides a place for one’s mind to be quiet and at peace, and practicing the mindset can help build control over emotions and knee-jerk reactions.

  • Ask for feedback: One of the best but most difficult ways is to ask trusted friends and coworkers to talk to you about how they see you. Ask about your reputation with other people, teams or departments, and listen even when they tell you things you don’t agree with. Later, consider your reputation against who you think you are. Do they match?

How to Encourage Self-Awareness

The first and best way for a leader to encourage self-awareness is to reach out to their team and ask for feedback. Most employees gain a good understanding of their manager’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as how they themselves can work with those strengths and weaknesses to better understand and execute their job.

Many employees will, certainly, look at the chance to criticize their boss with suspicion; offering poor feedback to a boss may feel like career suicide. To avoid this, and to help gather honest feedback, make sure you actively ask for this kind of feedback from your employees and encourage them to share thoughts. It will require a foundation of trust in both the leader and the company for employees to be able to offer this kind of information.

Questions to Ask a Team

One way to approach this is to phrase it in the form of questions about the employee’s own work. This can sometimes open the door and provide a safe place for teammates to begin the discussion. Try phrases like:

  • Is there anything else I could be doing to help you with this project? This allows the employee to focus on specific project work and on specific actions, rather than just jumping into the discussion.

  • What else could I do to help your career development? Again, this starts the employee in a safe place — discussing their own career — and uses this to lead into the rest.

  • I’m working on my own performance management documentation. What do you think I could improve on for the department in the upcoming year? This allows the employee to focus on skill sets, rather than personality traits, and also allows the question to be framed within the department.

Open Conversation is Key

Employees aren’t the only ones who will have valuable information about one’s reputation; ask other managers, teammates from other departments who may not interact with you daily and your own boss and leadership team. It can be a challenging thing to do, and will initially provoke feelings of hurt, upset or even anger. However, these conversations are a crucial tool to build the kind of self-awareness that can turn a good leader into a great one.