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Diagnosing Self-Awareness

In my experience people constantly overestimate their self-awareness. In fact, aggregating all the results from the 360s I have conducted with leaders and managers, of the fortytwo items in the assessment, those relating to self-awareness rank lowest. There are many consequences associated with this statistic, the main one being that these leaders have little awareness of the impact they have on those around them. They could be winning hearts and minds or turning people off completely. The low scores also imply that many of us are so focused on the next meeting, presentation, or goal that we give no thought to why we behave the way we do, let alone whether the behavior is appropriate or not. The truth is we operate for much of the time on autopilot; it’s only when things don’t go the way we expected or someone doesn’t behave as we’d predicted that we are forced take stock of how we might have contributed to the problem. Consider this example. Vikram worked out of the Canadian subsidiary. He had been on the fast track, but his career had stalled. I had spent many hours as his sounding board while he frantically reorganized his group over and over in an attempt to build the perfect high performance team that could help his business regain momentum. One day he came in and casually mentioned that he was thinking of “blowing up” his new team and starting from scratch. “Why?” I asked, “You’ve spent so much time and effort putting this team together.” He said he wasn’t sure it was the right thing to do, but anything would be better than the status quo. I found this nebulous reply unsatisfactory. He was so close to having everything he wanted, and now he was going to throw it away? Something didn’t add up. I started asking him questions about his feelings toward stability and change, which one he preferred and why. Eventually he brought up his father—a senior lecturer at a prestigious Canadian university. Vikram explained that appearances were very important to his father, so with every promotion or raise he’d uproot the family and move them to a new and bigger house so that his colleagues and community would know about his heightened success. One move so taxed the family budget that they ate nothing but rice for six months. I asked Vikram if he saw any parallels between his behavior and his father’s. He acknowledged that he, like his father, equated success with constant transformation and that he was forcing his team to “eat rice” in his quest for recognition and success. Vikram is a perfect example of someone who had low self-awareness, who was oblivious to the reasons for his behavior and the impact he was having on others.

I ask my clients three questions when diagnosing or gauging their level of selfawareness:

  • Are you aware of how your behavior impacts others and can you change it when necessary?
  • Do you actively seek out feedback from different sources regarding your strengths and weaknesses?
  • Can you listen to feedback or criticism without shutting down, becoming defensive, or lashing out at the messenger?


The first question points to where clients might focus their attention predominantly on themselves, on ohters, or ideally, both. For example, Carl and I were coming to the end of work together and I needed him to become much more aware of how his behavior affected others. It often happens that I get a lot of unsolicited feedback on the behavior of the leader I am working with from his or her directs, peers or colleagues and I had been getting a steady stream of feedback about Carl's behavbior. There was no doubt he had made significant progress on identifying his beliefs and building his own Brand, but as for "playing well with others" he was a bull in a china shop. We started our session together by talkiing about the notion of self-awareness and I introdced him to the cards I use with clients to help them reflect on their behavior (I first introduced the ‘cards as homework’ concept in Chapter 2). The idea is that a Leader takes one card a week at random from the pack and reflects on the question printed on the card. I gave Carl a pack and in typical fashion he immediately took the wrapper of and started looking at the questions. After a moments pause he started to use the analogy of driving a car to describe becoming self-aware. “I need to become more aware of what all the knobs and dials do so I can drive more effectively” he observed. I loved the analogy but pointed out that I was less concerned with him learning about the inside of his car and more interested in how he was driving. I commented “You’re too focused on you Carl and ignoring the others on the road—are you a careful driver? Do you cut people off and frustrate other drivers on the road. Do you indicate and message your intentions?” He got my point. He then extended his ‘car analogy’ to his directs by drawing a car and a camper on a sheet of paper. “The car is me” he said, “and the camper my directs. I’m doing all the driving and they could be up to anything—playing cards, sleeping. How would I know?” For several minutes I got caught up in the his discussion of his directs when I became aware of two things—the first was how hard Carl was working—there were large dark circles under his armpits, and the second was ‘why on earth are his direct reports in a camper!’ I hadn’t asked Carl the most important question “why aren’t your Direct Reports driving in the car with you?” He considered the question and the light dawned—he needed his team in the car with him, this would make him a better driver. “They could sit in the back,” he said. “I decided to push him further “would you” I asked “let one of your directs drive the car whilst you sat in the passenger seat?” This was a configuration he had never considered and took us back full circle to his lack of self-awareness and how he was oblivious to the impact his behavior had on others in his business, as well as his direct reports. I’ve subsequently used the car analogy with other leaders I have worked with to illustrate not only the need to share the driving but to draw attention to how driving may impact others on the road.

The second question exists because we can only gauge our effect on others if they tell us about it, and we can only replicate a great performance when we understand what we did. For a number of years now I have worked with Chris and Cathy, two business analysts who used to work for the consulting firm McKenzie. They have never been clients, but I have learned a lot by observing how they work. After every presentation or meeting, the two of them huddle together and give feekback on each other's performance - what they noticed, what went well, what they would change based upon their observations, and what should be the practical next step. Chris and Cathy are two of the most self-aware people I have met because they realize the importance of feekback for their own growth as well as continued business success. They also realize feedback cannot wait until midyear performance evaluations or end-fo-year reviews; it has to become part of a person's daily routine to be truly effective. The third and final question probes clients' openness to feedback. Do they become defensive when they are given advice? Do they interpret feedback as criticism, something to avoid or get angry about? If they make a mistake is it always someone else's fault? Without the ability to really hear feedback a client will make little progress - with me or on the job.

How Self-Aware are You?

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