I was recently invited to observe a corporate simulation at a university in New York. First-year MBA students were each assigned an executive role within a fictional company. The goal of the simulation was to increase the company’s stock price. I quickly recognized two distinct personalities in one group: a more reserved member who was meant to be the CEO and an outspoken member with a role in another functional area. Soon after the simulation began, the outspoken student took over the room.
In my first round of feedback, I explained how important it was for each group member to stay in their own lane—to function within their assigned role. The outspoken group member had a valuable, broad skill set, but he needed the self-awareness to sit back, respect other people’s roles, and recognize their contributions. My feedback was initially taken with a bit of apprehension, but as the simulation continued, the outspoken member recognized the merit of stepping back and ultimately course-corrected the behavior. After the simulation, he came up to me and said, “I’m really realizing how much I do that. Thank you for your feedback.”
Have you ever worked with someone like this? You respect them and they do good work, but some of their actions hold the team back? I’ve been in this boat before. From direct reports to peers to higher-ups, I’ve worked with colleagues who don’t understand how they come across. I’m not referring to office jerks who are aware of their impact and apathetic; I’m talking about well-intentioned people who are innocently unaware. And to clarify, I’m in no way immune to this. Sometimes I’m that oblivious person. We all are. Cultivating self-awareness and course-correcting is an ongoing journey for everyone.
My Experience With Self-Awareness
As President of Sayge and a leadership coach myself, self-awareness is near and dear to my heart. When I think about self-awareness, I consider how I show up and impact the people around me. In a TEDx Talk, organizational psychologist and researcher, Tasha Eurich, offers a solid definition of self-awareness: “The ability to see ourselves clearly—to understand who we are, how others see us, and how we fit into the world.” And, how we fit into an office environment.
As a coach, I know I can help employees cultivate self-awareness. At the same time, I recognize that I can’t put it on myself to hope people implement my feedback. Cultivating self-awareness is each person’s individual choice and responsibility. Although cultivating self-awareness is a largely introspective process, it has external effects. Our own self-awareness (or lack thereof) can positively or negatively impact the people we work with.
How to Cultivate Self-Awareness in the People You Work With
While it’s one thing to work on our own self-awareness, it’s another to help other people develop self-awareness.
If you want to cultivate self-awareness in the people you work with, it’s important to start by recognizing your own bias. Before I engage in a conversation about self-awareness, I like to remind myself that I’m not inherently more self-aware than the person I’m speaking with. Given our subjectivity, it’s often easier to recognize the negative impact of other people’s behavior versus the negative impact of our own behavior. While this doesn’t disqualify us from initiating developmental conversations, it’s important to approach these conversations with humility.
According to Eurich, “For someone to truly be open to critical feedback, they must trust us — they must fundamentally believe that we have their best interests at heart.” This is the next step in helping someone develop self-awareness: Critically evaluate whether you are the best messenger. Ask yourself, “Given the relationship with this person, is there enough trust between us to have a productive conversation?” If you determine that you’re the best messenger, it’s time to highlight the behavior.
Identifying the action or behavior can happen in two main ways: (1) The behavior can be identified using an objective tool like an assessment, or (2) The behavior can be pointed out by an [unavoidably subjective] person. If you use an assessment, it may be done as a companywide exercise or a one-on-one conversation with a supervisor or coach. As a companywide exercise, this can remove some subjectivity, not to mention, no one person will feel singled out. If you opt to have a one-on-one conversation, you may want to start by asking the individual if you can share feedback, or plan to have the conversation during a regular performance review. Then provide honest feedback, focusing on the impact of the behavior and alternative solutions. Most importantly, help them realize that by being self-aware of this behavior, it will be better for their career overall. If they continue to ignore it, the reverse is likely to happen.
During conversations like this, you will experience varying responses and levels of acceptance. At the end of the day, although you can increase someone’s self-awareness, they decide what comes next. To help them on their journey, follow up, ask how this new self-awareness is helping, and discuss their vision for ongoing professional development.