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3 ways to achieve self-awareness—and become a better leader

The average person believes they are self-aware—but research has found only 10% to 15% of people actually fit the criteria. Do you?

3 ways to achieve self-awareness—and become a better leader
[Photo: Lefteris_/iStock]
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Early on in my career, one of the leaders I worked with taught me an invaluable lesson. In order to be successful, it was going to be my responsibility to always ask questions, raise my hand for help, and speak up when I was unsure about something. This leader was never bashful about showing me how my own personal blockers could inhibit my career growth.

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Up until that point, I had interpreted asking for help as a sign of weakness, and representative of my professional shortcomings. It took me a solid two years to overcome that misconception, and to understand why I needed to acknowledge the skills I hadn’t yet mastered. The reason? You can’t fix what’s hidden, and you can’t practice what you don’t acknowledge.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was on a path to developing self-awareness. I began learning more about what it actually means to be self-aware, and how it can benefit your professional development. Interestingly, the average person believes they are self-aware—but research has found only 10% to 15% of people actually fit the criteria.

The benefits of self-awareness are tenfold. It catapults your ability to clearly articulate your desires and to ask for help in forging the path to get you there. It also creates stronger leadership competencies. Self-awareness has helped me balance my expectations of people, lead with more empathy, and to remove some of the unconscious biases that many of us unknowingly integrate into our conversations with others. It’s also helped me make some of my most important career decisions, because I’ve learned to reflect on the skills I haven’t mastered yet and find roles that will help me grow those skills.

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But nurturing self-awareness isn’t a quick fix. It’s an ongoing journey, where you will experience phases, based on people and events you’re exposed to over time. The good news is that self-awareness is a learned behavior. We can all strive to inch just a little bit closer to fully understanding how and what truly motivates us.

Here are three ways you can practice developing self-awareness to grow your leadership skills.

Understand where you over-and-under index

A groundbreaking research project from Dr. Tasha Eurich, an organizational psychologist, identified that there are actually two types of self-awareness: internal self-awareness and external self-awareness. And they’re not mutually exclusive; you can possess one or both types.

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Internal self-awareness represents how clearly we see our own values, passions, aspirations, thoughts, feelings and our impact on others. Studies have shown that this type of awareness correlates with higher job and relationship satisfaction, as well as general happiness.

External self-awareness represents understanding other people’s perceptions of our value systems and our thoughts or our feelings. When people drift towards external self-awareness, they typically understand how others view them. And, they’re more skilled at showing empathy and taking in other people’s perspectives.

Within the two buckets of self-awareness, there are four leadership archetypes: Introspection, Seekers, Aware, and Pleasers. I fall into the Aware and Pleaser categories. This means that I know who I am and what I want, and I’m fully aware of how I show up to others; but I often go out of my way to try and appease a variety of personalities at one time. I try to toggle between the two; sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.

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It’s most impactful to equally develop both subtypes of awareness, rather than over-indexing on one or the other. An analysis from Gallup showed people who possess a high level of self-awareness are generally proven to be good leaders in a plethora of environments, because they intentionally seek out balance and inter-and intra-personal skills. Which leads me to my next suggestion—lead with why.

Dig deep into your why

One of the ways I’ve identified some of my self-awareness gaps is through self-reflection. The process might look different for everyone. Setting aside time for journaling has been helpful for me, but self-reflection could also be meditating, cognitive therapy, or just five minutes of uninterrupted, focused thinking time.

I believe one of the biggest mistakes we all make as humans is that we observe things about ourselves—but we don’t bother to ask ourselves why. Why did I react to my coworker that way? Why is it that around certain people, I don’t feel any inhibition, and others I feel incredibly tense? Dedicate the time to figure out why you move the way you move.  Ask yourself why you responded the way you did—and if you had the opportunity, would you do it the same way, or would you handle it differently?

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Self-reflection is a discipline, just like if you were training for a marathon or if you were preparing for a big meeting. However if you choose to reflect, the point is to ensure you are doing so intentionally. And remember to dig deep into the why—this will be incredibly beneficial to help you become more aware about who you are, how you move through life, and how you can more effectively lead others.

Discover other people’s why—and help them grow in the process

Working on my self-awareness has made me more sensitive as a leader to recognize how other people show up in the workplace. Being your authentic self is so important to finding happiness and fulfillment at work.

I remember working with a teammate several years ago who always seemed to give off a nervous air when they were presenting in front of others. Even though other employees would dress casually, this employee would wear dress clothes every day. When they would talk, they would tug at their clothes or fidget with their collar, which made them seem uncomfortable and unsure of themselves. One day, I pulled this person aside to talk privately, and asked them if they got nervous when speaking publicly. It surprised me to find out that they really enjoyed it. The reason they seemed so uncomfortable? They were physically uncomfortable! They were dressed formally in the middle of summer in Texas.

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I asked why they felt the need to dress up—and they shared that at their prior job, even though their workplace said there was a casual dress code, there was an unwritten rule that casual still meant dressing very polished and upscale. And if you didn’t, you were judged. I asked what they would feel more comfortable wearing if they didn’t feel there was an unwritten rule, and assured them they could wear just that. From then on, their whole demeanor changed. If I hadn’t asked those follow-up questions, I would have made the assumption that this person doesn’t like public speaking and has nervous energy in front of crowds, when that wasn’t the case at all.

Whether you are analyzing yourself or you’re attempting to better understand one of your team members, be prepared to ask this question: “Who am I and why” or, “Who are they and why” 1,000 times over. Be prepared to not be able to answer that question on some occasions, and be comfortable with your answer, or the employee’s answer, changing or evolving all the time.

The journey to becoming self-aware is like the song that never ends. Just like there is never an endpoint to learning and growing, there is never an endpoint to self-awareness. As long as you’re exposed to different moments, people, and interactions, your self-awareness will continue to evolve.

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Morgan Cole is a senior trainer on the learning and development team at real estate platform Opendoor.