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How Self-Aware Are You?

| February 19, 2019

by Jim Bruce

Self-awareness, one of the key elements of emotional intelligence, is one’s “capacity for introspection and the ability to recognize oneself as an individual separate from the environment and other individuals. Self-awareness is how an individual consciously knows and understands their own character, feelings, motives, and desires. There are two broad categories of self-awareness: internal self-awareness and external self-awareness.?”1
Jennifer Porter,executive and team coach, notes that internal self-awareness involves understanding your own feelings, beliefs, and values. She continues noting that “When we don’t understand ourselves, we are more likely to succumb to the fundamental attribution error of believing that the behaviors of others are the result of negative intent or character (‘he was late because he didn’t care’) and believing that our own behaviors are caused by circumstance (‘I was late because of traffic’).”
She also notes that individuals “with low internal self-awareness typically see their beliefs and values as ‘the truth,’ as opposed to what is true for them based on their feelings and past experiences. They can fail to recognize that others may have equally valid perspectives.”
External self-awareness involves understanding how our words and actions impact others. Unfortunately, all too often we don’t stop and take the time and effort to understand this impact. As a result, we are not able to leverage the strengths of others or identify and correct behaviors that negatively impact the team.
This brings us to the crucial question: What might I do to improve my self-awareness, both internal and external? But, first, a warning. Adam Grant, professor of management and psychology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, has written, in his essay People Don’t Actually Know Themselves Very Well,3  that “no one has perfect self-awareness – you probably ‘know’ more than a few things about yourself that are false.” 
Grant continues, “Sixteen rigorous studies of thousands of people at work have shown that people’s coworkers are better than they are at recognizing how their personality will affect their job performance. … I could ask you to fill out a survey on how stable, dependable, friendly, outgoing, and curious you are. But I would be better off asking your coworkers … They’re often more than twice as accurate. They can see things that you can’t or won’t – and these studies reveal that whatever you know about yourself that your coworkers don’t is basically irrelevant to your job performance.”  
Self-awareness is the ability to recognize a feeling as it is occurring. People who are self-aware are better able to understand the emotional implications of their own thoughts and actions as well as the feelings of others. Such a deep understanding of the feelings of oneself and of others is crucial to self-management and motivation.
So, back to the question, what do I do to become more self-aware? In general, you can improve your own self-awareness through practicing reflection, gathering feedback, identifying triggers to your behavior, developing strategies to intervene when someone or something pushes one of “your buttons,” and by “staying in the moment.”
Adam Grant3  also has three specific suggestions:

  1. Take deep dives with those you want to know and who you want to know you. NASA prepared a crew for the International Space Station by sending them into a wilderness for 11 days. Their support team let them get lost. The result was a team that knew each other better, better than other colleagues they had worked with for years. Deep dives, such as the NASA experience or through the focused work of a small team, help you develop your external self-awareness.


  1. Look into yourself, discover what makes you tick. Write it down so you have a user’s manual on yourself. Jennifer Porter suggests that you regularly ask yourself four questions:

           – What emotions am I experiencing now?
           – What am I assuming about another person or situation?
           – What are the facts vs. my interpretations?
           – What are my core values? How may they be impacting my reactions?


  1. Intentionally get into situations where you cannot ignore feedback from multiple individuals. Grant suggests a good number is four.

As you are learning more about “self-awareness,” you may have a desire to strengthen some of the “self-awareness” skills you already have. For example, suppose that you have a habit of keeping bad behaviors of your team members “bottled” inside you until you get so frustrated that you “explode” all over whoever is nearby. That habit is not serving either you, or team members who exhibit the same bad behavior, well. To address this, you might develop a “practice”  – a specific, conscious, action – that helps you change your way of addressing the situation. (Brian McDonald, president and founder of MOR Associates, wrote about practices in a guest Tuesday Reading, Leveraging Practices … to Enhance Your Leadership4  early in 2018.)
So, my obvious challenge to you is to become more self-aware. Where do you start, you ask? One place that works for me is to develop a better understanding of my emotions associated with interacting with others. To help me, I have a “before and after” practice of examining my emotions associated with significant interactions. Also, since I always want to be prepared, I have practices associated with planning and preparation. You can find other suggestions in Bradberry and Greaves’ book, Emotional Intelligence 2.0,5  where they have a list of 15 starting points you might choose from, or you might develop your own list by asking yourself Jennifer Porter’s four questions stated earlier in this essay. 
No matter where you begin, do take some time this week to focus on further developing your self-awareness skills. It will be valuable to you as you continue your leadership journey.
Make it a great week for those who work with you and for yourself.  .  . .  jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates.  He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.

  1. Wikipedia, Self-awareness. Quote retrieved February 9, 2019.
  2. Jennifer Porter, To Improve Your Team, First Work on Yourself, Harvard Business Review, January 2019.
  3. Adam Grant, People Don’t Actually Know Themselves Very Well, The Atlantic, March 2018.
  4. Brian McDonald, Leveraging Practices … to Enhance Your Leadership, Tuesday Reading, January 16, 2018. 

Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves, Emotional Intelligence 2.0, TalentSmart 2009