Why leaders need to be more self-aware

April 9, 2018
4 minute read
Last updated August 2, 2019

Over the course of a long management career I slowly became conscious of a trend: Managers who had little idea of how they were coming across to others, who weren’t fully conscious of the effects of the messages they were sending, had difficulties with employees. On the other hand, managers who seemed more insightful about their relationships with others generally got along better with employees and were more effective.

I didn’t know it at the time – like many managers I was too busy trying to keep my head above water each day to read much about what I was doing or try to gain perspective on it – but I now realize I was thinking about self-awareness. And dimly recognizing it was a key piece of the endlessly challenging puzzle of management. Without it, successful management would always be an uphill struggle: Managers would intend one thing and employees would feel another.

 

A recipe for problems

Which is why I took keen interest a couple of months ago when I heard a woman being interviewed on NPR. Her name was Tasha Eurich and her field of study was self-awareness, and she was discussing how important it was to relationships and business, but how it often was in regrettably short supply.

Eurich is the author of Insight, and has given a TED talk on the topic. I interviewed her recently to see how her Ph.D. studies in the field compared to my completely unscientific intuitive feelings.

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Yes, she said straightaway, lack of self-awareness is a substantive issue for management. Studies have shown, she noted, that only around 10% to 15% of the population are highly self-aware. What this means for management is that large numbers of managers are lacking it. “Some people have literally never thought about it” was how she put it.

When managers are out of touch with how their actions may affect others, it’s a recipe for problems. The impact? “The people who work for such managers,” Eurich said, “they may not like them, they may not trust them.”

Ironically, these issues can sometimes be exacerbated the higher one goes in an organization. “People in power tend to have less empathy,” Eurich noted, “since the more power you attain, the harder it is for people to tell you the truth.”

 

On the flip side of the coin, however, managers at all levels who diligently want to work on improving self-awareness (gaining meaningful feedback, taking 360 reviews, thinking hard about their own behavior, etc.) can become “more effective and more promotable,” Eurich said.

The insight benefit

Indeed, the more insight people have into their managerial behavior, the better off they’ll be. Doesn’t really matter how they get it so long as they do. National statistics consistently show that around 70% of employees are disengaged, or not emotionally committed to the organizations they work for, a productivity drain and a failure of management that I believe is tied at least partly to self-awareness issues. If I were running an HR operation today, I’d definitely put exercises to increase self-awareness near the top of the management development food chain.

It’s a fascinating subject. Though I’d never fully thought through the lack-of-insight implications, I’d long recognized the problem with people at an organization’s highest levels having difficulty getting “people to tell you the truth.” Indeed, being surrounded by yes-men and yes-women is a common C-Suite problem. Providing candid, meaningful feedback, when one has a high salary at stake and one’s career can be adversely effected by a thin-skinned senior executive, can be a daunting task. Often the path of least resistance is simply to tell someone what you think they want to hear.

 

It brings to mind an old true story of what I was told as a young manager going in for the first time to work on a big project with our CEO.

“When he tells you to jump,” a colleague seriously advised me right before the meeting (sensing perhaps some worrying tendencies toward individuality), “You ask, ‘How high?’”

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Predictive Index. 




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