top of page

Working with People Who Aren’t Self-Aware


Even though self-awareness — knowing who we are and how we’re seen — is important for job performance, career 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.

At the office, we don’t have to look far to find unaware colleagues — people who, despite past successes, solid qualifications, or irrefutable intelligence, display a complete lack of insight into how they are coming across.

In a survey we conducted with 467 working adults in the U.S. across several industries, 99% reported working with at least one such person, and nearly half worked with at least four. Peers were the most frequent offenders (with 73% of respondents reporting at least one unaware peer), followed by direct reports (33%), bosses (32%), and clients (16%).

Un-self-aware colleagues aren’t just frustrating; they can cut a team’s chances of success in half. According to our research, other consequences of working with unaware colleagues include increased stress, decreased motivation, and a greater likelihood of leaving one’s job.

So how do we deal with these situations? Is it possible to help the unaware see themselves more clearly? And if we can’t, what can we do to minimize their damage on our success and happiness?

Understanding the problem

Not all badly-behaving colleagues suffer from a lack of self-awareness, and not all who do can be helped. Therefore, you must first determine whether the source of the problem is truly someone’s lack of self-awareness. Ask yourself:

What’s behind the tension?

When we’re having trouble working with someone, the problem isn’t always a lack of self-awareness on their part. Interpersonal conflict can arise from different priorities, incompatible communication styles, or a lack of trust.

To determine whether you’re truly dealing with an un-self-aware person, consider how others around them feel. Typically, if someone is unaware, there’s a consensus about their behavior (i.e., it won’t just be you). More specifically, we’ve found several consistent behaviors of un-self-aware individuals:

  • They won’t listen to, or accept, critical feedback.

  • They cannot empathize with, or take the perspective of, others.

  • They have difficulty “reading a room” and tailoring their message to their audience.

  • They possess an inflated opinion of their contributions and performance.

  • They are hurtful to others without realizing it.

  • They take credit for successes and blame others for failures.

Where is this person coming from?

In contrast to the unaware, certain difficult colleagues—like office jerks—know exactly what they’re doing, but aren’t willing to change.

I once knew a chief operating officer with a reputation for humiliating his team whenever they disappointed him. When finally confronted about his behavior, his response was, “The best management tool is fear. If they fear you, they will get the work done.” (Unsurprisingly, his superiors did not share his views and fired him several months later).

The biggest difference between the unaware and the Aware-Don’t-Care are their intentions: the unaware genuinely want to be collaborative and effective, but don’t know they’re falling short. Whereas the “aware don’t care” unapologetically acknowledge their behavior (“Of course I’m pushy with clients. It’s the only way to make the sale!”), the unaware can’t see how they’re showing up (“That client meeting went well!”).

Helping the unaware

Once you’ve determined someone suffers from a lack of self-awareness, it’s time to honestly assess whether they can be helped. Think about their intentions and whether they’d want to change. Have you seen them ask for a different perspective or welcome critical feedback? This suggests that it’s possible to help them become more self-aware.