A recent article in the Harvard Business Review has the thought-provoking title, “To Improve Your Team, First Work on Yourself”. What does this mean? After all, there are deadlines to manage, targets to hit, meetings to attend – and now leaders need to carve out extra time to “work on themselves”?
Yes. In fact, I’ve been teaching this for years.
Great leaders are self-aware; as the article states, they have both “internal self-awareness” and “external self-awareness”. Internal self-awareness means we understand why we think the way we do and we are aware of the filters through which we view the world, while external self-awareness means we understand how we come across to others.
Consider an example: You are an action-oriented leader, with little appetite for small talk or long, drawn-out decision processes. One of your team members is trying to determine the right course of action on a project and has approached you with a detailed assessment of several options, which they’ve asked for your help on.
Lack of internal self-awareness might think, “This is ridiculous; the solution is obvious”, and lack of external self-awareness could produce body language and a tone of voice communicating frustration and impatience.
Internal self-awareness would pause and think, “This individual has a different decision-making process than I do; let’s see if I can help them streamline it”, and external self-awareness would communicate appreciation for their efforts and patience with their preferred decision-making style (even if it also let them know a more efficient process might be needed).
The key is in the ‘pause’. Self-awareness calls for a pause after our initial, instinctive thought, during which we can choose a more productive thought, and plot a more effective action. William Deresiewicz is quoted in the article as saying: “The first thought is never the best thought”. I’d add, “And acting on the first thought might be even worse”.
How do we develop self-awareness? Here are three ways to start:
- Understand your narrative and how it shapes your identity
We all have stories we tell ourselves about who we are. These not only shape our past, but they also shape our future and our goals. To better understand your narrative, ask yourself a few questions:
What people and events have had the greatest impact on you?
Which experiences gave you the greatest passion for leading?
How do you frame significant setbacks or turning points in life?
When we take the time to reflect on questions like these, we can begin to see that our patterns often find their genesis in tendencies, experiences and influences which are unique to us; therefore, our perception of the world will be similarly unique. In the above example, perhaps your parents were quick-thinking salespeople, or maybe first responders who needed to make split-second judgments of extreme consequence, whereas your team member was influenced by adults who were scientists, schooled in the importance of pain-staking attention to detail. Both perceptions have inherent strengths and weaknesses, but more importantly, they are just that – perceptions. Treating one as ‘correct’ attributes a degree of certainty that no perception deserves.
- Practice Self-Reflection
Self-reflection helps you focus on the important things in life, not just the immediate things. Having a daily reflective practice can help you gain perspective and remain calmer.
Practices can take many forms: journaling, walking, running, meditating, or even just quiet time or a deep breath. The key, again, is to mindfully implement the ‘pause’ – the time it takes to separate yourself from your instinctive reaction.
When we fail to pause before reacting, we can also use self-reflection to see where we need to back-track, to acknowledge where we misjudged or mis-stepped, and to take steps to bridge the divide of understanding.
- Look for Honest Feedback
We all have blind spots, good and bad. Regularly seeking feedback from those you trust will help you understand some things you don’t see (“what you don’t know that you don’t know”, so to speak). This is particularly helpful in building external self-awareness, since it’s almost impossible to know how you come across to others without their input. For example, what to you feels calm and rational, to someone else might appear cold and uncaring. The inverse can also be true – you may feel like you were too emotionless about something, but your team might have been boosted by what they saw as calm confidence. The point is – you don’t know unless you ask.
Self-awareness is a philosophical premise, but it has a significant real-world impact. A self-aware leader is more equipped to make wise decisions and pursue smart actions. Take the time to work on this part of yourself, and those deadlines, targets and meetings – not to mention the functioning of your team overall – will benefit.