Self-awareness is a deceptively simple concept, a key component in the mindset I call “genuine kindness,” and one of four critical attributes that make up an approach to workplace behavior that benefits the self, the team, and the organization. (The other three are responding vs. reacting, authenticity, and accountability, but for now, I’m going to focus on this critical first component.) While self-awareness would seem to be a strictly reflexive action, aimed inward, there are actually two points of view to consider: internal self-awareness and external self-awareness.
Internal self-awareness is the more commonly recognized perspective: Internally self-aware individuals understand their own strengths, growth opportunities, values, comfort levels, and ambitions, as well as the impacts of their communication style and other traits that combine to create a cohesive self in the workplace.
External self-awareness is trickier and often overlooked: This kind of self-awareness turns the lens around to apprehend how others see us with regard to the same factors listed above. If you are a business leader, this second part of self-awareness is a crucial step in assessing your image in your employees’ eyes, whether or not it conforms to how you view yourself.
Breaking down self-awareness into these two parts is not my original discovery; in fact, it has been the basis for scientific studies in the past. Tasha Eurich, an organizational psychologist and executive coach, published a 2018 Harvard Business Review article that examines “what self-awareness really is, why we need it, and how we can increase it.” The importance of distinguishing internal and external self-awareness became quickly apparent to her during ten investigations with nearly 5,000 participants: while most believed they were self-aware, she and her team discovered that only between 10 and 15 percent actually demonstrated full self-awareness.
In order to underscore the necessity of an internal/external approach to self-awareness, she breaks her subjects into four typical archetypes: introspectors, seekers, pleasers, and—finally—that rarest of birds: the truly aware individual. “Introspectors,” as the name suggests, are gifted at understanding who they are and what drives them, but they tend to avoid outside feedback and have little knowledge of how others view them. “Pleasers” tend to be experts in self-presentation, understanding precisely how they appear in other people’s eyes, but they also have less understanding of who they are as individuals, including their own personal goals and values. “Seekers” are in the first stages of self-awareness, both internally and externally, still attempting to discover who they are and how others view them. The “aware” participants demonstrate strength not only in self-appreciation and self-appraisal but also in assessing their image from others’ points of view. It should come as no surprise that this final archetype has the greatest tendency to find harmony in the workplace, fulfillment in their profession, and a higher functionality among the teams they manage.
Fair enough: we should all aspire to be completely self-aware. But are there ways to achieve this endeavor more efficiently, without feeling permanently consigned to our particular archetypes? One helpful, counterintuitive tip Eurich offers is to avoid the question “why” as we investigate our values and impacts. On the face of it, it would seem, for example, that wondering why we tend to avoid feedback might provide a helpful answer, but Eurich argues otherwise:
As it turns out, “why” is a surprisingly ineffective self-awareness question. Research has shown that we simply do not have access to many of the unconscious thoughts, feelings, and motives we’re searching for. And because so much is trapped outside of our conscious awareness, we tend to invent answers that feel true but are often wrong.
Beyond this trap, Eurich adds, “why” also tends to invite excessive self-criticism and self-judgment. I think we can all remember a time when irrational despair and self-disgust came in the form of a “why” question: “Why can’t I do this? Why do I continually sabotage myself?” These “why” questions wind up being strictly rhetorical, because they discourage meaningful answers and lead to condemnation over solutions.
Instead of “why,” Eurich suggests, ask “what”—not unlike an impassive scientist. When I do this, what happens? What do my coworkers do when I behave that way? By following this less emotionally charged interrogative path, we can find more objective answers unclouded by personal judgments and preemptive despair.
There are many practical ways to approach comprehensive self-awareness, both internally and externally. As with trading “why” for “what,” some of these strategies are relatively simple. In my forthcoming book, Genuine Kindness, I particularly focus on this all-important objective of self-awareness, describing many other adjustments leaders can make as they negotiate a path toward this rewarding goal, the foundation for a genuinely kind, highly efficient workplace.