7 Ways for Leaders to Improve Self-Awareness

Research tells us that when we can see ourselves more clearly, it increases our confidence and enables us to make better decisions. We build stronger relationships and communicate more successfully. It makes us more effective leaders, resulting in not only increased levels of employee engagement, but also profit for our organisations.

Most people don’t spend a lot of time and energy on improving their own levels of self-awareness. Studies show that whilst 95% of us believe we are self-aware, in reality only 10-15% of us actually are. In the workplace we can gain a false sense of security and confidence when it comes to our self-awareness based on our level of experience and knowledge. We can end up overestimating our skills and abilities and how effective we are at leading our teams.

As a leader, being more self-aware is one of the most powerful tools there is to achieving success in what you do and the relationships you have. There will always be areas where we can improve and adjust our behaviour, often leading to extraordinary results. Here are 7 practical ways you can improve your self-awareness.

Know your strengths

Whilst this might seem obvious and many of us think we know our strengths, we can often make assumptions these are the things we do well, which is not always the case. You might have developed some learned behaviours you have been practising for years which you’re good at, yet don’t necessarily find energising. These are the situations or activities that take time for you to muster up the energy and enthusiasm to step into or do. They can feel like a chore or you may get bored easily and after you have done it, find you have little enthusiasm left for anything else. Too much time in these areas can lead to burnout.

On the flip side, we can also chase the energy of our strengths because they energise us. We spend time fuelling our own needs and can get triggered when those needs aren’t met. This can be dangerous, because a strength is only a strength when we are using it effectively, otherwise it can become a risk and a weakness to ourself and others.

The good news is increasing our self-awareness of our strengths can help us recognise what fuels and drains our energy tank so we can be more productive and apply them effectively. It can help us explore what triggers us into overuse patterns as well as the areas where we aren’t naturally gifted, so we can get support and different perspectives from people who have strengths that we don’t.

One of the best ways to do this is to take a psychometric like Clifton Strengths or Facet5 and then work through the results with a Certified Coach to help apply the results based on your current reality and what you are looking to achieve. And when you understand your own strengths better, you can be a more inclusive strength spotter to others.

Identify your blind spots

Blind spots are areas where we lack awareness of our weaknesses which can get in the way of achieving our goals, break down relationships and lead to disengagement in the teams we might be leading. They can become particularly problematic when they are ignored or tolerated.

Studies show that leaders who don’t check their blind spots can end up shutting down cognitive diversity, creating echo chambers of like-minded people, which can lead to feelings of exclusion. Leaders can unconsciously shut down diversity of thought because they make choices and send signals that are aligned to their own cognitive preferences and strengths.

One way to discover your blind spots is to look back over mistakes and look for patterns of weakness and preferences. According to Robert Bruce shaw, author of ‘Leadership Blindspots’ our mistakes can show us where we are lacking understanding, knowledge or skills. It can help identify areas where we need to develop and draw on the strengths of others to help us.

Another is to recognise our own triggers which lead us to demonstrate undesired behaviours. When we find another person or a situation frustrating, it’s usually because they think and feel differently than we do or our needs aren’t being met. For example, if you’re somebody who tends to make decisions quickly with a limited amount of data, it can feel frustrating if someone says they need more information and time to think it through. Yet it can help us highlight what we might be missing by only seeing it from our own perspective.

We can only change our behaviour if we get to the heart of what’s causing the frustration in the first place. Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • What is most frustrating about this situation/conversation?
  • What am I expecting to happen/of the other person?
  • What am I expecting of myself?
  • What needs of mine are not being met in this situation/conversation?

Once you have identified the trigger(s) and your patterns of response you can focus on what behaviours you would like to replace. For example, next time you want to move quickly on a decision and someone asks you for more information, you can ask the other person curious open questions to understand their own perspective and needs.

Listen up

Listening is a blind spot for most of us as it’s often something we perceive ourselves as doing well. It can be particularly problematic for leaders who fail to see they can be more intimidating than they think as their title in itself can be a silencer to others. Megan Reitz, author of ‘Speak Up’ says that as leaders we can forget how scary we are and, because we consider ourselves approachable, we often blame others for not speaking up. Reitz suggests 3 tips for listening up to get others to speak up:

  • Check who’s on your ‘little list’. Ask yourself who do you tend to refer to for your opinions, to hear something useful. different or uncomfortable? We all have our lists of whose opinion counts and those we will dismiss which are informed by the titles and labels we place on others. Ask yourself – who do you tend to go to for opinion and whose voices don’t you listen to? We need to pay attention to who is on our list and those we are excluding.
  • Take care about how you respond to being challenged. How we respond to being challenged sends messages to others. Even if we do it well 9 times out of 10 it’s the one time that you dismissed an idea, talked over a person or cut them off, excluded them in a meeting, got angry or became defensive that will become the story. According to Reitz’s research, one out of four of junior people in the workplace expect to be punished in some way for speaking up with a problem, which means it’s no surprise that people tend to stay silent. The way we behave when we are challenged sends signals to those who are observing our response. So, ask yourself the question: How did you behave last time you were challenged, or someone disagreed with your perspective on something?
  • Think about what signals you’re sending to others. Leaders are always being observed for what they say, do, how they react and behave. It can be easy to be unaware of a frown, tilt of the head, narrowing or raising upward of the eyes or a cross of the arms when someone else is talking to you. Unfortunately this can easily be translated by the person opposite you as disagreement or disapproval.

Some of the commons signals we see in the physical or virtual workspace is distractions from technology – be it a phone, having Outlook open, receiving emails or messages flashing up over Teams. It sends signals to the other person that you’re distracted by something else more interesting than them. Another is appearing stressed because of work and time pressures and expressing how busy you are, giving off another signal that you don’t have time for the person in front of you. What signals do you send, intentionally or unintentionally, that might be discouraging others?

Play fewer chips

Power, or perceived power, that is related to a position or title can create a level of confidence and perception that we need to be the person with the idea or solve the problem. Whilst we may have the best of intentions, we might accidentally be shutting down the ideas and actions of others. This in itself creates a blind spot by shutting out different perspectives and potential solutions and as leaders we learn more by asking the people we lead to share their insights, instead of sharing our own.

In her book ‘Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter’ Liz Wiseman suggests experimenting by ‘playing fewer chips’, giving yourself a budget of ‘poker chips before a meeting, with each chip representing a comment or contribution. When you play a chip, go big and when you’re not playing, go small and allow others the space to contribute. She caveats this by ensuring you allow silence to pass after you speak as other might be expecting you to jump in and to be ok with silence as it creates a vacuum to draw others in. If you’re concerned that others might think you are disengaged, you can let them know upfront that you will be in listening mode to hear others contributions and ideas.

Know your story

Wiseman says leaders can invite others to experiment and learn by sharing their own mistakes and incorporate this learning into decisions and everyday leadership practice. Reflecting over our own leadership journey and charting the highs and lows and the big mistakes can help us develop these stories. For each mistake, identifying what you did, what happened, where you went wrong in your actions or assumptions and what you learned from it. And then looking for opportunities to share these stories.

Kim Scott, author of ‘Radical Candour’, says storytelling is a great way to develop yourself and relational awareness. Think of a time when you screwed up and someone told you. Even though it hurt in the moment, it no doubt helped you in the long run. Sharing these stories with your team shows vulnerability, self-awareness and  humility. It shows you are open to appreciating criticism, making it easier to get feedback and the more feedback you get, the more self-aware you become.

Get regular feedback

There’s often a misconception that improving self-awareness is all about reflection and introspection and the ability to recognise your strengths and weaknesses. Whilst it’s an important part, individuals with the highest levels of self-awareness understand the impact they are having on others as well as themselves.

In her extensive research (What Self-Awareness Really Is and How to Cultivate ItInsight: The Surprising Truth About How Others See Us, How We See Ourselves, and Why the Answers Matter More Than We Think), author and psychologist Tasha Eurich found that people who improved their self-awareness did so by seeking frequent feedback from those who have their best interests in mind and are willing to tell them the truth. They also gut-checked difficult or suspiring feedback with others.

If you’re leading a team ask yourself honestly:

  • How confident are you that you know how your team, peers, boss, board…. see, think and feel about you?
  • When was the last time you asked for feedback on your behaviour and performance?
  • When you ask for feedback, how clear are you on the behaviours you want feedback on?
  • How comfortable are you in asking your peers for their perspective on how they see you?
  • When your hear feedback do you respond defensively by interrupting, blaming or justifying the behaviour or situation?

Ask yourself what, not why

In her research Eurich also found that successful self-aware leaders didn’t ask themselves ‘why’, they asked themselves ‘what’. Why questions can send us into a spiral of unhelpful thinking leading us to fixate on our fears and what’s wrong with us, turning off the rational processing parts of our brain. Changing why questions to good what questions instead increases our self-awareness and can give us better outcomes. So instead of asking ‘why didn’t that turn out how I wanted it to’, ask yourself instead:

  • What can I do differently next time?
  • What can I learn from this experience?
  • What feedback can I get from this?

Exploring our levels of self-awareness it isn’t about making anyone feel shame, guilt or fear, it’s about understanding how it might be limiting possibilities for us or impacting on others. It’s all part of stopping us from behaving automatically so we can start making better choices and achieve greater levels of success. The good news is it’s completely learnable and can always be developed, no matter what stage we are at in our careers or in our lives.

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