The Surprising Power of Self-Awareness for Leaders

“On a good day, 80 percent of us are lying to ourselves about whether we’re lying to ourselves.” — Tasha Eurich

I recently had a fascinating conversation with organizational psychologist, executive coach, researcher, and New York Times best-selling author Tasha Eurich. Her most recent book, Insight: The Surprising Truth About How Others See us, How We See Ourselves, and Why the Answers Matter More Than We Think, presents a compelling proposition for leaders: self-awareness exerts a dramatic effect on your success and it can be learned.

Tasha and I discussed the fundamentals of identifying and building self-awareness, why it matters so much, and how leaders can remove roadblocks that prevent them from understanding and seeing themselves clearly. Because we covered so many crucial insights and points of action for business leaders, today’s article is the first of a two-part series—the second of which will drop in my next newsletter. 

Why Self-Awareness Matters

Tasha’s research, writing, and coaching is driven by her desire to help successful people become even more successful, and particularly to help leaders become more effective, inspiring, and self-aware. Like me, she sees vast potential in individual leaders both within and beyond themselves. “It’s true that every leader—whether they’re a formal or informal leader—has a tremendous amount of opportunity to positively impact others,” she said.  

On the other hand, as we’re all painfully aware, leaders also have the less desirable potential to negatively affect others. And that happens—usually inadvertently due to cognitive biases and lacking self-awareness—far more often that we think. “So,” she added, “my job is really to help people who mean well and want to do good for the world actually do that.” 

“Those who are willing to see themselves differently, who are able to hear feedback that challenges their view of themselves, are always more successful than those who aren’t.” Click here to Tweet.

As an organizational psychologist for more than a decade, Tasha had observed a pattern: Regardless of whom she was working with, their position, industry, or the country in which they resided, “those who are willing to see themselves differently, who are able to hear feedback that challenges their view of themselves, are always more successful than those who aren’t.” 

What’s more, this pattern seemed to hold true against the backdrop of a world she perceived as becoming “more and more self-absorbed—and less and less self-aware.” 

That’s when she started to wonder what self-awareness—a buzzword in popular management literature at the time—was all about. Was it as important as she thought it was? And was it a learnable skill?

Two Types of Self-Awareness

These were not simple questions to answer. In fact, it took Tasha and her team almost a year just to define what self-awareness actually was. Two categories surfaced repeatedly, both of which were important and neither of which seemed sufficient on its own. She explained, “The first is seeing ourselves clearly—self-awareness from the inside out. That’s what I refer to as internal self-awareness. The second is understanding how others see you. This is external self-awareness.” Further, the team discovered that the two categories of self-awareness operate completely independent of one another.

To illustrate, Tasha offered concrete examples: “Everybody knows someone in their life or their work who considers self-examination to be a hobby. They love to journal or perhaps go to therapy several times a month or go to mindfulness retreats. They are very internally self-aware. But at the same time, they’re not necessarily focused on the impression they create with others. Other people might see them as selfish or stubborn, for instance. Just because we have one type of self-awareness doesn’t imply we’ll have the other.”

She continued, “The same is true for people who are externally self-aware but who are not internally self-aware. If you’re highly externally self-aware, you typically live your life by other people’s rules. You don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what is meaningful and important to you and how you can make authentic values-based decisions based on your own internal compass.”

Both of these archetypes are important, particularly for leaders!

Through my coaching practice, I’ve seen it both ways. Overly self-focused leaders have no idea how they come across to others and often inadvertently demoralize and confuse their teams. On the other hand, if you’re hyper-focused on how other people perceive you, you’re likely seen as inauthentic, unpredictable, or even lacking integrity because your rules seem to change in every situation. This scenario destroys trust which, of course, is THE fundamental building block of high-performing teams.

Tasha added: “For leaders, the roadmap is really clear. First consider how much time and attention you’ve paid to each of these types of self-awareness—these two camera angles for how you can see yourself. Then ask: Have I been neglecting one? And if so, what can I do about it?”

Which type of self-awareness do you typically pay more attention to–internal or external? Click here to answer today’s leadership poll question!

What, in fact, can you do about improving your self-awareness? To find out, Tasha posed a critical question to her research team: “Do you think someone can go from woefully [lacking self-awareness] to seeing themselves really clearly?’” She believed that if they could find these people, they could identify commonalities and patterns to help others improve their self-awareness.

One of Tasha’s research assistants was quite cynical and believed it would be extremely challenging to find people who had transformed their self-awareness—so much so that the team decided to label their elusive quarry self-aware “unicorns.”

From there, finding these so-called unicorns became the focus of the research program. Along the way, Tasha and her team surveyed thousands of people all over the globe and reviewed nearly 1,000 related scientific journal articles. 

Unicorn Insights

Indeed, the research team found their unicorns! As expected, unicorns represented a very small percentage of the total population analyzed—just fifty people. They were different ages and genders, from different countries and different walks of life, and held different professional roles in a variety of different jobs. There were teachers, artists, and entrepreneurs among the group. One was a Fortune 50 CEO. Others were stay-at-home parents. But all demonstrated that they saw themselves clearly. 

Our opinions of ourselves, however, usually don’t give us the whole story and we aren’t highly accurate judges of our own self-awareness. With that in mind, in addition to surveying the unicorns, the research team also asked others who knew them well to answer the same survey. To be deemed a unicorn, the answers provided by the subject and their counterpart had to align. Further, both parties also had to report that the subject had increased their self-awareness substantially over the course of their lives. 

Clear patterns emerged regarding what the unicorns did to successfully cultivate their self-awareness. All of them shared two traits:

1)  A dogged commitment to improving their self-awareness. No matter what they knew, they always wanted to learn more.

2)  A regular, consistent habit of increasing their self-awareness almost every day.

If you’re wondering about how self-aware you are, I invite you to take Tasha’s Insight Quiz to find out!

The 80 Percent Blind Spot

The team’s research produced other eye-opening findings, as Tasha mentioned: “We found that 95 percent of people believe that they’re self-aware, but only about 10-15 percent of people actually meet the criteria to be self-aware. That means on a good day, 80 percent of us are lying to ourselves about whether we’re lying to ourselves.”

Reflecting on the magnitude of this self-awareness blind spot and having found that the problems we seek to solve in the world—or the issues we see in others—are often indicators of things we need to resolve within ourselves, I asked Tasha “Did you come to any realizations about yourself that caused you to grow along the way?” 

“What I learned,” she answered “Is that I was definitely in that 80 percent. I now know enough to know that I am not as self-aware as I thought.” Tasha sees that as a positive outcome for anyone who might come to the same understanding. “It’s such an important step in our self-awareness journey to say, ‘Wow, so many things I thought were givens about myself are not as clear,’ or ‘So many things that I see are not things others see—and vice versa.’” 

In fact, these realizations are among the most important steps in building one’s self-awareness. 

“There’s a sense of humility and openness to learning that grows with increasing self-awareness.” Click here to Tweet.

Tasha continued, “What I always tell the CEOs I coach or my readers or the people I speak to is, ‘I’m right here with you. We are all on this journey together.’ And that actually makes it, I think, kind of comforting.”

“And simultaneously terrifying and liberating,” I added. “Terrifying because you now realize who you’ve been and how you’ve been showing up in the world. And liberating because the barrier is lifted, and you feel as if you have a path forward.” There’s a sense of humility and openness to learning that grows with increasing self-awareness.

I’ve learned over the years that embracing continual growth is critical for any leader. In fact, I’ve never seen a business grow at a sustained rate greater than the personal growth rate of the people running it. Self-awareness—whether newfound or longstanding—is a predictor of one’s “coachability,” my metric for potential learning velocity. 

“The beauty of that,” Tasha said, “is that the leaders who are smart enough and courageous enough to focus on this critical skill are going to be ahead of the pack in the marketplace, in their organization, and their career. So, it’s almost like the worst-kept secret that nobody acts upon.” 

Now that you know the secret, you have the chance to act on it and—like the unicorns—continually build your self-awareness. The reality is that 80 percent of us are—well—in the 80 percent! We have some level of self-deception about how self-aware we are and how we come across to others. Multiplied through leaders and across organizations, the costs of this are staggering!

Are you willing to acknowledge that you are likely in the 80 percent? And are you willing to do the work to become more self-aware? If so, Tasha’s Insight Quiz is the place to start.

We’ll cover the next steps in Part II of this series: How to build better self-awareness. Along the way, we’ll explore the ties between self-awareness and happiness, expose the factors that interfere with truly understanding yourself, and outline tactical ways to overcome them. Stay tuned!

In the meantime, for more on Tasha Eurich and her work, visit www.insight-book.com. You can also follow her on LinkedIn.

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Resource Links…

In my work as a business and leadership growth coach, I encounter articles, research, and stories about how leaders learn, grow, and become more effective. As you’ll see below, I share just two or three in each edition of my newsletter – particularly those at the intersection of leadership, business growth, and behavior change.

The Self-Improvement Strategy The CEO of GoDaddy Uses to Find Success (BusinessInsider.com)

“To be a better leader, be a better person.

That insight, which comes from David Cotrell’s book “Monday Morning Leadership,” is one of GoDaddy CEO Aman Bhutani’s fundamental leadership principles.

“We’re in the fortunate position of riding the digitization wave,” Bhutani told Insider. “But even our company faced a significant number of challenges as the pandemic hit.”

Those challenges ranged from everything from ensuring GoDaddy’s China team was able to continue operating safely, to addressing the rapidly evolving needs of the company’s customer base, which largely involves small business owners who use GoDaddy to build online platforms.

But when faced with tough decisions, Bhutani returns to his principle of self-improvement — and it’s helped him to be decisive and navigate change.

“That principle has helped me through the most difficult of decisions,” he said.

It can be hard to know how to infuse personal growth into business. Here’s how Bhutani has used self improvement to better himself and his company…”

Five Questions Smart People Ask Themselves Before They Speak (Forge.Medium.com)

“Think before you speak,I told my 6-year-old son, Liam, earlier this week. I immediately regretted saying it as it’s often a generic phrase that parents give their kids when they say something rude, and I know I didn’t like hearing it when I was young. Liam stopped and asked me an interesting question: “What should I be thinking about before I speak?”

At the time, his question caught me off guard, and I told him he should always ask himself if what he’s about to say is true, kind, or useful. But his question got me thinking if there’s more to the answer. As adults, so many of us run our mouths aimlessly, which can lead to stress and anxiety for ourselves and everyone around us. What should we be thinking about before we speak in order to make our time with others productive and meaningful?

I’ve been trying to better answer Liam’s question by collecting questions smart people ask themselves before they speak. Here are five we can all use…”

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Next Steps to Accelerate Your Leadership Success…