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.”

Click here to Tweet.For example, successful leaders tend to believe that repeating the same patterns will continue to lead to the same—or more—success. “We make assumptions like, ‘What I’ve been doing has gotten me this far,’” Tasha added, “and then think that those same actions will continue to serve us indefinitely, which is usually not the case.” She continued: “Many leaders also believe that others would alert them if their decisions and/or actions were having a negative impact on the organization. But this rarely happens, due in part to the fact that the more power you have, the more career limiting it is for people to tell you the truth.” That, Tasha said, is a recipe for low external self-awareness. Ask for Feedback So, what do you do about it? First note that because you are a leader, you are probably not as externally self-aware as you could be. Simply acknowledging this likelihood helps make it more solvable. The next step—and the fourth strategy—is to ask for feedback. Some worry doing so will make others think that they’re just seeking approval, that they’re weak, or that they don’t know what they’re doing. But according to Tasha, that couldn’t be further from the truth. “It has been shown consistently that leaders and people who ask for critical feedback are socially rewarded by their direct reports, by their peers, by their bosses—even by their customers.” Thus, Tasha added, “for leaders, the first step in improving external self-awareness is acknowledging that [the process] is probably not going to be fun but I’m prepared to learn things I won’t like and I’m going to do it anyway.” How often do you ask for critical feedback? Click here to answer today’s leadership poll question! Be Humble Tasha went on to explain that there’s a strong correlation between humility and self-awareness. “Particularly for leaders, when we’re humble, we’re not overly self-critical. We’re just curious about things we can be doing better or looking for data about how other people see us.” Accordingly, the fifth strategy is to improve your humility. Humility not only makes asking for feedback more productive, but it also helps overcome the power gradient—that the farther away someone is from a person in power (on an organizational chart), the less likely they are to speak up. A humble leader shrinks the power gradient and makes it safer for everyone to speak up and provide vital feedback. “A humble leader shrinks the power gradient and makes it safer for everyone to speak up and provide vital feedback.” Click here to Tweet.But getting feedback in and of itself might not be enough. Tasha noted that although we spend a tremendous amount of time learning how to ask for feedback, her research has shown we do so largely at the expense of what might be an even more valuable consideration: Who do we ask for feedback? Among the highly self-aware unicorns, Tasha found that they weren’t casting a wide net for feedback. Instead, they were rather picky and strategic about who they queried, turning to three to five trusted sources regularly for ongoing critical commentary. “As we delved into the magical feedback givers who made our unicorns so extraordinarily self-aware, we saw two criteria had to be met—not one or the other, but both. The first was that the unicorn had to believe that person was on their side…. The second was that they also had to believe [the feedback givers] would tell them the truth, especially when it was hard to hear it.” Tasha and her team dubbed those trusted individuals “loving critics.” Here’s how Tasha describes the sixth strategy: “The most important thing to do is make sure you’re getting feedback from the right people.” Identify a small number of “loving critics” and make it safe for them to tell you the unvarnished truth! Six Strategies to Improve Your Self-Awareness Here’s a summary of the six research-based strategies we’ve explored that improve both internal and external self-awareness and your effectiveness as a leader: 1. Clarify your values—What matters to me most? 2. Develop a daily self-awareness habit—How can I become slightly smarter or more self-aware today? 3. Move from introspection (“why” questions) to action (“what” questions) as you reflect—What can I do to learn and/or move forward from here? 4. Ask for feedback and be prepared to listen carefully—How can I become a better leader? 5. Improve your humility, making it safer for others to provide you with honest feedback—How can I minimize the power gradient effect of my leadership? 6. Cultivate a small number of “loving critics” and enlist their help—Who are my “loving critics?” I’ve written previously about the compounding effect of our behavior and how it works relentlessly and reliably, one way or another, to our benefit or to our detriment. It’s useful to look through that lens at these strategies to appreciate the potential long-term upside of taking next steps and the unpleasant downsides of inaction. Explore Your Next Frontier Ready to begin your journey to greater internal and external self-awareness? Choose two of the six strategies, determine specifically how you’ll honor them daily, and get going to build new, compounding habits. As you get started, consider taking Tasha’s free Insight Quiz. It’s a fourteen-question online survey you complete first and then have sent to a friend or colleague to complete on your behalf. You’ll receive suggestions via email for meaningful next steps based on your score. Toward the end of our conversation, Tasha shared a hopeful comment from one unicorn, a middle-school science teacher, who likened his self-awareness journey to exploring outer space. “There’s so little we know,” he said, “and that’s what makes it so exciting.” Indeed, regardless of where you stand currently—no matter what you think you know about yourself and how you show up as a leader—there is always more yet to discover. For more on Tasha Eurich and her work, visit www.insight-book.com. You can also follow her on LinkedIn.


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