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Marek Struszczyk

Co-Founder ManagerUp

Last modified: June 8th, 2023

All leaders need a rich and varied set of skills and personality traits to be successful. And an increasingly important skill that has recently gained more traction is self-awareness.

Most people consider themselves to be self-aware, 95% in fact, according to studies at Harvard. But the reality is that this number is actually closer to 10-15%.

That’s a pretty low number for a skill that has been proven to be beneficial to leaders and in turn business.

Extensive research has shown that self-awareness in leadership roles creates many benefits for business success and helps set the tone for the growth of the whole company.

Let’s find out what it means to be truly self-aware and what you can do to build your own self-awareness.

What is self-awareness?

A generic, one-size-fits-all definition of self-awareness doesn’t really exist. Some people see it as a heightened state of self-consciousness. While others define it as the difference in the way you see yourself versus how others see you.

Some people believe that you are born with self-awareness, while others believe that you can master it through therapy. Insisting that in order to understand yourself, you must first understand your past. The premise of this idea is that in understanding where you come from, you also understand why you may react the way you do.

I tend to favor the latter and believe that self-awareness is a skill that can be learned.

What is the behavioral science behind self-awareness?

Psychologists say that self-awareness is the ability to focus on yourself. And perhaps most importantly, it is the ability to understand how your actions, thoughts, or emotions match with your internal standards – or indeed if they don’t.

Numerous studies into self-awareness over the past 50 years concluded that on a basic level, there are two different types of self-awareness:

  • Internal self-awareness: which is how we understand ourselves and our strengths, weaknesses and motivations.
  • External self-awareness: which is how we understand how we appear to other people and the impact we have upon them. This requires empathizing with others so we can understand their perspective.

Interestingly, people who have heightened internal self-awareness skills don’t necessarily have external self-awareness skills. This means that while they may understand their own motivations, they may be lacking in empathy and understanding of others.

An alternative way of approaching self-awareness is the principle of the 5 elements of self-awareness, which includes:

  • Your concept of yourself, or how you perceive yourself.
  • Understanding our thoughts, which helps us to become more aware of our emotions.
  • Recognizing our feelings, both when we speak about ourselves and when others speak about us.
  • Acknowledging our body’s physical responses, which are likely going to be automatic and beyond our control.
  • Honing your emotional intelligence, which is to understand your own emotions and also how they affect others.

It’s abundantly clear that to become more self-aware, you need to develop an understanding of yourself in many areas. It’s about knowing who you are and how you will respond to stimulation or external stressors.

Why is self-awareness an important leadership skill?

Self-awareness is increasingly being recognized as an important leadership skill because it creates harmony and collaboration in the workplace. It helps create a growth mindset where you show that you are happy to learn and to move forward. It also enables you to accept that like everyone else, you are not perfect.

If you are truly self-aware you will understand your purpose and the value that you bring to your role, your company and your team. You will appreciate your strengths and characteristics which will allow you to perform better – while also knowing when you need to seek support.

By developing your self-awareness, you will be better placed to understand when you should listen to others, or if you are in the position to assert your authority. A manager who knows when to listen leads an inspired and engaged team.

How leaders can use self-awareness to be more effective, productive and inspire better employees

Emphasizing self-awareness in leadership roles builds trust in employees and shows that your company is willing to evolve.

If your team knows that you are open and receptive to new ideas, it creates an environment that promotes better business performance all around.

Being self-aware enables you to become more approachable and humbler. It can be frightening for some managers to admit they don’t know it all yet having the strength and wisdom to accept that they don’t, helps your business grow and flourish in a collaborative spirit of success.

Self-awareness is all about adopting a growth mindset. Instead of asking why something has happened, ask yourself what could you have done to make it better. Once you can ask yourself this, you are on the way to self-awareness and an improved business future.

So how do self-aware leaders benefit from understanding their own behaviors and emotions?

As mentioned, self-awareness enables leaders to realize their strengths and to know when they should gain support or delegate duties if someone is better suited to the task.

It requires managers to put away their own egos and instead focus on collaboration. Which creates a business environment that inspires growth and development.

A self-aware person is willing to listen to others, is confident in their abilities and has a growth mindset that accepts that change and development on all levels is the best way to move the company forward.

Importantly self-aware leaders understand that like everyone they have their own set of unconscious biases and are likely to ask for input from other team members when it comes to decision-making.

What prevents people from being self-aware?

The most common reason leaders fail to develop self-awareness is ego. A business leader may believe that all their success comes down to their own hard work and commitment. This is called a self-serving bias and people with this mindset refuse to accept that they make mistakes, or their business success has anything to do with luck or other team members.

People that possess this mindset often blame external factors for mistakes or problems rather than taking responsibility. They blame external factors, like the economy, the delivery chain, the suppliers and anything else before they acknowledge their own contribution – or lack thereof.

How leaders can master self-awareness

Now that you know what self-awareness is and how, as a leader, you can benefit from it. Let’s take a look at how you can learn to develop a greater sense of self-awareness. 

Identify your emotions.

Acknowledging your emotions will help you identify what triggers them. Knowing what makes you feel happy, excited, worried or angry will provide you with the insight to control them – or better yet respond more appropriately. We often become stuck in behavioral patterns and react in the same knee-jerk way without asking ourselves why. The simple act of recognizing our emotions provides us with valuable insights into how we react.

Get some honest feedback

Asking your close friends, trusted colleagues or family for some honest feedback on how you present in various situations might seem daunting, but remember you are the only person who doesn’t witness your own behavior patterns. It is important to see yourself through other people’s eyes, as this will help you see how your communication methods and habits affect other people.

Realize that you have both strengths and weaknesses

Everybody has strengths and weaknesses. Even if you’re an important leader, this also applies to you. Once you have learned a bit more about yourself and can understand how others may see you, you can tailor your communication style to achieve the best results.

Successful leadership relies on delegation and self-awareness will help you understand when you are the best person for a job and when you are not.

Keep an open mind

All good leaders are naturally curious, they are always looking for new insights or innovation. Keeping an open mind and listening to colleagues and employees can help you develop new successful strategies. Practice active listening and guard against becoming judgmental of people or plans before you have heard them through.

Keep a journal

Keeping a journal can lead to improved self-awareness. By writing something down you are acknowledging that it is important to you. It can also help you see how you react to situations and when this can be improved in the future.

Be a better leader, be more self-aware

Science tells us how we can be more self-aware by understanding ourselves – both from within and also from how we are perceived by others. It’s about understanding what drives us and appreciating how we respond and react to our environment. It is through these lessons that we can overcome our egos and bias and be better leaders.

We are better placed to nurture and inspire others by leaning into our strengths and seeking support for our weaknesses.


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