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Six Research-Based Strategies To Improve Self-Awareness and Leadership

The first article in this 2-part series featuring Tasha Eurich explored the fundamentals of self-awareness, why it matters so much for leaders, and the two habits of highly self-aware people. Tasha is an organizational psychologist, executive coach, researcher, and the New York Times best-selling author of Insight: The Surprising Truth About How Others See us, How We See Ourselves, and Why the Answers Matter More Than We Think.

Today we get practical and tactical, highlighting six proven strategies to improve your self-awareness and your leadership.

Tasha and her team identified two distinctly different types of self-awareness: internal self-awareness, in which we see ourselves clearly from the inside out, and external self-awareness—understanding how other people perceive us––or self-awareness from the outside in. They found that those who possess high levels of both types of self-awareness report less stress and anxiety, more job and relationship satisfaction, and more happiness and control in their lives. They are also more effective leaders.

I conducted a (non-scientific) LinkedIn poll recently in which participants were asked to identify which type of self-awareness they pay most attention to. The results overwhelmingly favored internal self-awareness at 70% versus 30% reporting more focus on external self-awareness. Tasha and her team found that 85% of us are more un-self-aware than we realize, so it’s clear that both development and balance are in order for most, whether we admit it or not. So, how do you cultivate internal and external self-awareness? We’ll begin with your ability to be internally self-aware. Cultivating Internal Self-Awareness “The most common and innocuous barrier to internal self-awareness is just the speed and stress of life,” Tasha noted. “We go through our days—particularly leaders and people in positions of power––fighting fires, solving problems, being pulled in a million different directions. And if we’re not careful, we can let those situations take precedence over our own internal compass.” This, in turn, leads to inconsistent decision-making and management, which frustrates teams and burns us out, drastically limiting any leader’s effectiveness. Tasha shared two ways to overcome this “busyness obstacle” and proactively improve the clarity with which you see yourself. The first of six strategies to improve your self-awareness is to consider your values. “Sometimes,” Tasha said, “when I ask people about their values, they [inquire about whether I mean] at work or in life, or in this role or that one. I reply that your top two values are your top two values, no matter what role you’re playing, no matter what you’re doing or what’s happening in your life.” Most simply defined, your values represent what’s most important to you—and the proof lies in your behaviors rather than in what you say. Here’s an easy-to-use exercise to define your values. If you’d prefer a different approach, search “values exercise” online for dozens of viable options. Regardless of how you define them, clear values improve internal self-awareness. They are reminders of what’s most important to you and can become a “North Star” to help you remain on track regardless of the twists and turns along your path. The second strategy is to develop a daily self-awareness habit. Note to skeptics: Stick with me on this one—it’s simple to implement and takes less than a minute per day. Each day, ask yourself: How can I become slightly smarter or more self-aware today? Almost every highly self-aware person Tasha and her team encountered (the research team labeled them unicorns because they are so rare) had a daily practice to cultivate reflection. “I was actually surprised to discover that, for the most part, it’s not these huge sweeping improvements; it’s small incremental improvements and insights,” Tasha said. “That’s what our unicorns did. They focused on how they could get smarter every day—just one percent more self-aware every week. When you think about how that adds up over time, it’s pretty powerful.” To help, Tasha developed the following three questions, which she suggests you ask at the end of each day: What went well today? What didn’t go so well today? What can I do to be smarter tomorrow? She also mentioned a common pitfall of self-reflection to avoid: overthinking. With that in mind, Tasha said “What I encourage people to do instead of navel-gazing or trying to unearth your most unconscious thoughts is to gain a more practical understanding [of the situation at hand].” For example, if you didn’t get a promotion you wanted, instead of asking yourself “Why didn’t I get promoted?” you could ask a series of “what” questions instead that would likely lead to more self-awareness, such as: What have I learned from this that I can apply moving forward? What didn’t I know that got in my way? What support can I ask for moving forward to maximize my chances of getting promoted in the future? From Introspection to Action I’ve seen this pattern hold true through the lens of my coaching. In the early years of my practice, I worked with most clients—entrepreneurs, CEOs and business leaders—one-on-one. Over time, a number told me that they made more progress in a matter of months working with me than in years or decades of therapy. Now, I’m not a therapist—and that’s not why my clients work with me. But when I reflected on what enabled them to progress so rapidly, a clear pattern emerged: I was helping them focus on the next action. Together, we were concentrating on “what” they could do about their situation, rather than continuing to rehash “why” things happened in the past. This brings us to the third strategy: Change your “why” self-reflection questions to “what” questions to move from introspection to action. Building External Self-Awareness The path to greater external self-awareness can be challenging because most of the obstacles typically emanate from our own egos. This is because as a leader, whether you think of it this way or not, you hold a position of power. “Research—mine and others—has shown that the more power you hold, the less self-aware, on average, you will be,” Tasha said. “It doesn’t mean that a leader is a bad person or hopeless in terms of their self-awareness, it just means that when we’re successful, we start to make certain assumptions.”