Know Thy Self
"A lack of self-awareness is poison. Reflection and review is the antidote." -James Clear
Self-awareness is a critical pillar of the effective leader. Strengths, weaknesses, biases, preferences, values, pet-peeves, etc. all become exponentially more relevant when someone assumes a position of responsibility. And, when that leader’s mirror is foggy, it results in poor outcomes for everyone around them. In fact, leaders who are less self-aware make poorer decisions, form weaker relationships, and communicate less effectively resulting in less satisfied employees and less productive organizations.
One would think that as a leader gains experience, their self-awareness grows. Unfortunately, one would be wrong. According to self-awareness expert and researcher, Tasia Eurich, experience and power actually hinder self-awareness. Those with more experience fall into an overconfidence trap where they overestimate their leadership effectiveness and level of self-knowledge. Moreover, as leaders gain power, they have fewer people around them who are able or willing to provide candid, constructive feedback. Instead, the voices they do hear are the sycophants whose praises are only grounded in self-interest resulting in a self-assessment that is off the mark due to being contaminated with biased data.
If self-awareness is critical to leadership effectiveness but stagnates as leaders progress in rank, then what are leaders to do? Feedback, feedback, and more feedback. However, all feedback is not created equal. Leaders should seek data that are objective, accurate, and preferably from “loving critics,” as Eurich calls them- that is, those who have the leader’s best interests in mind but are not afraid to share hard truths.
Personality tests are a great way for someone to develop internal self-awareness (i.e. awareness of one’s own values, goals, reactions, etc.). A personality test will give a leader the ability to take an in-depth view of their personality as well as see what traits are and aren’t within the normal range as compared to others. A personality test review paired with a few executive coaching sessions can help a leader truly understand why they behave as they do.
A word of caution: not all personality tests are created equal. The most widely used personality test across Fortune 100 companies, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), is one that lacks sufficient properties (e.g. validity, reliability) to be useful. In fact, it may even be harmful if managers use employee MBTI results to make managerial decisions. At Psyince, we advocate for tests that ascribe to the Five Factor Model of personality such as the NEO-PI, as they are backed by science.
As valuable as personality tests are, few types of feedback compare to the candidness elicited from surveying others. Administering anonymous surveys to employees to collect data on leader effectiveness is a great way to develop external self-awareness (e.g. understanding how others view us). These are commonly referred to as "360 Degree" surveys, as they are intended to give the leader a “360 degree” view of themselves.
A word of caution: garbage data will yield garbage results. Managers may be tempted to create their own 360 survey. Unless they have a background in psychometrics, we recommend either purchasing an off-the-shelf instrument or hiring someone with such expertise to develop one. Poorly worded questions can result in misleading data, which will hinder attempts at developing accurate external self-awareness.
Feedback from Loving Critics
Eurich recommends getting feedback from people who have our best interests at heart but are also not going to withhold information for fear of hurting our feelings. Leaders who are interested in this type of feedback should find five or so colleagues who fit this description and ask them two simple questions: 1) What’s the general perception of me, and 2) What could I do differently that would have the greatest impact on my own success? Leaders should explain that they are seeking honest feedback to improve as a leader, teammate, person, etc. and resist any temptations to explain themselves, defend their actions, or reveal disappointment.
A word of caution: leaders should avoid getting this type of feedback from those they have supervisory authority over. Whether conscious or unconscious, many subordinates will feel pulled to share only positive information for fear of reprisal.
Self-aware leaders are better leaders. However, self-awareness doesn’t happen automatically. It requires deliberate effort especially as leaders promote to higher positions of power. Through systematically and reliably collecting data, managers can reveal a clearer image when they look in the mirror and ultimately continue their upward journey towards professional growth.