Every manager has room for improvement, and most managers want to become better versions of themselves. In order to make appropriate changes though, a person needs to have a deep understanding of their own strengths and weaknesses. Enter self-awareness. Self-awareness is critical in creating the intentional behavior changes that can help managers improve.
What is self-awareness?
Self-awareness was first defined by Shelley Duval and Robert Wickland. These researchers proposed that at any given moment, you can focus your attention externally or internally. Self-awareness occurs when you are the object of your own consciousness. In other words, you can become more self-aware by examining your own thoughts and actions.
More recently, Tasha Eurich defined two different components of self-awareness: internal and external. Internal self-awareness closely mirrors the definition above. People with high internal self-awareness have a strong understanding of their own values, passions, emotional states, and their impact on others. Managers with high internal self-awareness know which competencies come easiest to them and which they struggle to achieve.
External self-awareness, on the other hand, describes our understanding of how other people perceive those qualities in us. People with high external self-awareness truly understand how the people around them perceive them. Similarly, managers with high external self-awareness know how their actions and choices impact their direct reports.
Why is self-awareness important for managers?
Self-awareness is important for a variety of reasons, but it is a critically important tool for managers. In fact, research shows that greater managerial self-awareness correlates highly with managerial performance, leader effectiveness, and report satisfaction. Higher self-awareness even predicts whether leaders are able to successfully make organizational changes. If better leaders are more self-aware, it tracks that becoming more self-aware can help you make the necessary changes to become a better leader.
Why is self-awareness so hard to achieve?
It might be easy to understand how important it is for managers to become more self-aware, but achieving self-awareness is an entirely different battle. In order to learn about your inner self, you must spend conscious effort and concentrated time exploring your own thoughts and feelings. Tactics for building internal self-awareness can include journaling, mindfulness, yoga and meditation. For most people, these processes can be unfamiliar and uncomfortable, and for busy managers, self-work often drops to the bottom of their lengthy to-do lists.
For external self-awareness, you can solicit feedback from those around you. In a workplace setting, that often takes the form of a 360 evaluation. Managers can learn how others perceive them by gathering information from their direct reports, their peers, and their own managers on any number of leadership competencies. If the manager also takes the evaluation, a 360 can highlight discrepancies between their own understanding of their strengths and weaknesses, and their coworkers’ perceptions. There may be glaring blind spots, where managers think they have adequate skills but their coworkers disagree. There may be hidden strengths, skills that managers didn’t realize they excelled at. There may also be alignment, which is important information in its own right.
However, 360 evaluations can be unreliable as well. By nature, survey responses are not objective, susceptible to myriad biases that respondents aren’t aware they have. Further, direct reports may be afraid to share their true opinions for fear of retaliation. Busy peers and supervisors may not dedicate the time required for a thoughtful response. Survey feedback can bridge the gap between internal and external self-awareness, but it will never be completely accurate.
The best tool to generate true self-awareness is hard data. Data is not subject to time constraints, respondent fatigue, perception, or human biases. Internalizing data does not require the same concentrated effort as true self-evaluation. When managers have access to information about how often they ask their reports for opinions, how frequently they message people after-hours, or how their communication frequency differs between reports, they can take actionable steps to change their behavior and become better managers.
Self-awareness is a vital tool for managers. While there are many accepted techniques to cultivate greater self-awareness, they are often difficult, time-consuming, and biased. In our new digital world, the simplest path towards self-awareness in the workplace is providing managers with objective information about their digital behaviors towards their team members and how these behaviors differ within their teams. While data cannot replace introspection, it can certainly expedite the process while removing human biases.
Rachel is the Senior People Scientist at Cultivate. As a psychologist, she’s always been interested in people: how we think, grow, evolve, and interact. She is excited to help Cultivate users interpret their behaviors through a scientific, research-based lens.