Why Most People Lack Self-Awareness and What to Do About It

The one approach I’ve seen really work in my 18 years of coaching and training people to improve their personal leadership through self-awareness is anonymous 360 feedback.

According to a Harvard Business Review (HBR) article, “Research suggests that when we see ourselves clearly, we are more confident and more creative. We make sounder decisions, build stronger relationships, and communicate more effectively. We’re less likely to lie, cheat, and steal. We are better workers who get more promotions. And we’re more effective leaders with more satisfied employees and more profitable companies.”

That’s a pretty strong business case for self-awareness being critical to our personal and organizational success. To take advantage of this, we first must overcome the self-awareness problem: Few people actually have self-awareness, but everyone thinks they do!  

“According to our research” says organizational psychologist and researcher Tasha Eurich, “with thousands of people from all around the world, 95 percent of people believe that they’re self-aware, but only about 10 to 15 percent really are.”

Yikes!

If your first reaction is like mine (i.e., “I must be in the 10 to 15 percent who are self-aware”), well, that’s normal. If your second reaction is “I’m quite sure I’m in the top 10 to 15 percent,” then you should stop reading this article. However, if like most thoughtful people, your second thought is “Hmm, maybe I’m in the 85 to 90 percent of people who are not as self-aware as they think they are,” then read on. I have a degree in Advanced Mathematics and knowing that it’s highly statistically likely that I am in the 85 to 90 percent contributes strongly to my thinking that I may not be as self-aware as I think I am. 

The More Successful We Are, the Less Self-Aware We Become!

This self-awareness gap is even worse for anyone in a management or leadership position. According to the HBRarticle, “The more power a leader holds, the more likely they are to overestimate their skills and abilities. One study of more than 3,600 leaders across a variety of roles and industries found that, relative to lower-level leaders, higher-level leaders more significantly overvalued their skills (compared with others’ perceptions). In fact, this pattern existed for 19 out of the 20 competencies the researchers measured, including emotional self-awareness, accurate self-assessment, empathy, trustworthiness, and leadership performance.”

The article goes on to say, “Researchers have proposed two primary explanations for this phenomenon. First, by virtue of their level, leaders simply have fewer people above them who can provide candid feedback. Second, the more power a leader wields, the less comfortable people will be to give them constructive feedback, for fear it will hurt their careers.” Nobody wants to make a career limiting move like that!

“CEO’s Disease” is the term Eurich coined to describe this phenomenon: The higher up people move in an organization, the less candid feedback they get.

The Challenge of Increasing Self-Awareness:

Here are some of the typical things well-intentioned people do to increase their self-awareness:

1. A natural reaction from someone truly reflective and open to increasing their self-awareness is to think: I’m going to have one-on-one meetings with all my direct reports and peers (or worse, get them all in a room together) and ask them to give me feedback on how I am doing. Stop right there!

This might be a valiant approach, but if you ask people to provide you with direct negative feedback (even if you call it “constructive”), they are highly reticent to do it and will not always tell you what they really think. (This has to do with their emotional brain not feeling safe and them not having the emotional intelligencerequired to face that fear). In fact, a symptom of CEO’s disease is that the higher up in an organization you are, the more risk people feel in providing honest feedback, so this approach is even less likely to work if you are in a management or leadership role.

2. A great step in the self-awareness process is to ask your direct manager for feedback. This shows you are open-minded and willing to learn. There can be two problems with this approach:

  • Some managers are terrible at giving feedback
  • Most of your behavior is not observable by your manager. Think about it: How many interactions, meetings, e-mails, decisions, etc., does your manager really see? So a manager’s feedback is skewed either by a lack of direct information, or worse, they rely on others to tell them how you are doing. We all know how accurate that is. 

Asking for feedback from your direct manager is worth attempting but should not be relied on solely for the purposes of achieving true self-awareness.

3. The next thing people sometimes do is ask their HR person for feedback about how people perceive them. Again, it’s good to ask, but now you have the issue of triangulation and the potential for misrepresentation and miscommunication. (“He said I said what? No I didn’t!”). In addition, HR people are like the rest of us and may hesitate to give you honest feedback.

4. A great tool for increasing one element of self-awareness is meditation. Through the practice of watching our breath non-judgmentally, we become more aware of how our mind wanders and the random and often negative thoughts we experience all day. Through meditation, we can increase our mindfulness. I highly recommend meditating, even if it’s only for 5 to 10 minutes a few times a week. 

Meditation does not deal with the fact that we may not be aware of some of our shortcomings and that our perception of how people perceive us may not be accurate. Recall that in Eurich’s research, leaders overestimated their abilities on 19 or 20 competencies as compared to how other people perceive them.

All of these approaches to increasing self-awareness are worth trying but may not lead you to be in the 10 to 15 percent of people who are truly self-aware. 

The One Approach that Works for Increasing Self-Awareness

There is only one approach that I’ve seen really work in my 18 years of coaching and training people to improve their personal leadership through self-awareness: anonymous 360 feedback. While some people may still feel nervous giving anonymous feedback on 360s because they think someone will hack in and see their feedback, I’ve seen enough 360s as a coach to tell you that you are so much more likely to get candid feedback this way.

It doesn’t mean you accept all the feedback as true, but you will be in a much better position to uncover the gaps in how you perceive yourself and how others see you. 

The most effective 360s for increasing self-awareness have a focus on self-awareness (I know, that seems obvious, but so many 360s focus on other things such as delegation, strategy, etc.), so you want to have an Emotional Intelligence-based 360 assessment. And if you really want to increase your self-awareness where it matters most, choose a 360 tool that includes friends and family. Now that’s a truly eye-opening experience!

How to View Your Feedback: Intention vs. Impact 

Whether you are getting feedback to increase your self-awareness from others directly, through a performance review, or from EI360 feedback, one of the things we teach to help people process their feedback is to recognize that our intention is often different from our impact, or how people experience us. 

We coach people to view any feedback as a report on their impact (and their behavior). It’s not about your intention and who you are. An example is that I have received anonymous 360 feedback in the past that I can seem like I don’t care what people think because I sometimes interrupt them. There is clearly an impact due to my behavior of interrupting. But is it my intention to make people feel like I don’t care? No, I get excited and I think I have the right answers, so I jump in. 

It’s much easier to look at changing our behavior when we view it simply as our impact, and not as our intention or an indictment of who we are. Due to the feedback I received, I work much harder to let people finish their sentences and ensure they feel heard. I’ve also come to learn that I don’t always have the right answers (another breakthrough in my self-awareness!). 

The Power of Feedback

From my own experience as a leader (I do our Ei360 assessment every two years) and from the training and coaching I’ve done myself with thousands of people, I will tell you there is no better way to improve your self-awareness—and avoid CEO’s disease—than by getting anonymous feedback through a 360. This is also great modelling for others. If you are getting feedback and working on your self-awareness, your team will be inspired to do the same. This is how you create a highly self-aware and feedback-rich culture.

Bill Benjamin is a training and leadership expert at the Institute for Health and Human Potential and a contributor to The New York Timesbest-selling book, “Performing Under Pressure.” Benjamin speaks on the topics of emotional intelligence and performing under pressure, and is a monthly contributor to CEO Magazine. He works with people in high-pressure environments, including Intel, Goldman Sachs, and the U.S. Marines.

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