Why Self-Awareness Is a Crucial Management Skill — and How to Get It

Developing self-awareness takes work, but here is why it’s important for your career advancement and your company’s performance.

Written by Dawn Kawamoto
Published on Jun. 30, 2022
Why Self-Awareness Is a Crucial Management Skill — and How to Get It

Call it the new manager syndrome. Rich Hua, global head of EPIC Leadership for Amazon Web Services, had a bad case of it early in his career.

“When I was a young manager, I came across as judgmental and critical of others. People thought I was a know-it-all. Like many new managers, I was asked to lead a team because I was a high-performing individual contributor. Also like many new managers, I had a hard time shifting my mindset from ‘top performer’ to ‘helping others be top performers,’” Hua told Built In. “I thought I was supposed to be the smartest person in the room and have all the answers.”

This actually demotivated people from sharing their ideas because they thought they would be critiqued or have their ideas disregarded, Hua recalled. 

What Is Self-Awareness?

Self-awareness is the accuracy with which you see yourself relative to how other people see you. If you have a high level of self-awareness, you have a fairly accurate view of yourself that is consistent with how others who know you reasonably well see you.

Hua eventually became aware of the impact his actions were having on this team. His cure for the new manager syndrome? Self-awareness — a key component of emotional intelligence.

“I asked for honest input from trusted friends. I was very lucky to have some ‘loving critics’ who were willing to tell me the truth to help me be more successful — both professionally and personally,” Hua said.

Self-awareness can indeed play a critical role in your career development and also your company’s bottom line.

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How Self-Awareness Can Impact Your Company’s Performance

Self-awareness blindspots can hurt a company’s performance, according to a 2013 report by The Korn/Ferry Institute, the research arm of talent management firm Korn/Ferry International.

Companies with a higher percentage of self-aware employees from individual contributors to top-level executives outperformed companies with a lower percentage, states a 2013 report by The Korn/Ferry Institute. 

The report included 6,977 employees at 486 publicly-traded companies and employees who had three or more blind spots were considered to have low self-awareness. 

Over a 30-month period, Korn/Ferry tracked the stock performance of those 486 companies and discovered some illuminating results.

The percentage of employees who had blindspots was 20 percent higher in poorly performing companies than in financially strong companies, the study found.

“The things that you did well in your past may not currently help you with your ongoing success. A dose of self-awareness means you have an accurate sense of what you are good at and where you still need to develop.”

And in an ongoing Korn/Ferry Institute study of 29,426 employees surveyed across the globe between 2015 through July, it found the three most frequent blind spots where people have a higher assessment of their competencies than others believe are in the areas of developing talent, building effective teams and managing conflict.

“Leadership is a journey. It’s a work in progress,” said Guangrong Dai, senior director of research, leadership and talent management at Korn/Ferry. “The things that you did well in your past may not currently help you with your ongoing success. A dose of self-awareness means you have an accurate sense of what you are good at and where you still need to develop.”

He added failure to develop and grow is called leadership derailment and self-awareness is a means to prevent it. 

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What Is Self-Awareness?

For starters, it begins with a deep understanding of your true self versus your ideal self, said Andrew Brodsky, assistant professor of management at the University of Texas at Austin.

“Instead of engaging in deep self-reflection to figure things out, some would say ‘I am the best manager of all time, everybody loves me, I know exactly what I’m doing. But true self-awareness requires something deeper to actually understand it and be aware of your true self, not just your ideal self,” Brodsky said.

Although there is no universally accepted model for self-awareness, Allan Church, co-founder and managing partner of Maestro Consulting LLC and former senior vice president of global talent management at PepsiCo, offered four common components of self-awareness.

4 Components of Self-Awareness

  • How you are seen by direct reports, peers, your manager, and any other groups of interest.
  • Connections or disconnections between what you believe you are doing and what others see you doing.
  • The degree to which you feel you can change certain aspects of your thinking or behaviors.
  • The degree of learning you can glean from changes you make or different work experiences you have, which allow you to process information about your surroundings and impact. 

For Hua, two components make up self-awareness. One is internal self-awareness which comprises real-time self-awareness that involves understanding what you are thinking and feeling in the moment and also deeper self-awareness which includes values, beliefs, strengths and weaknesses. The external self-awareness includes how people perceive us and our impact on others.

“All of those are important in the workplace because they determine how we act and the quality of our relationships,” Hua said.

The concept of self-awareness has its roots in clinical psychology and social psychology, said Church, noting it’s a piece of learning agility and emotional intelligence, which are broad leadership capabilities. 

Self-awareness took off in the mid-1990s to early 2000, said Julia Carden, owner of Carden Consulting, a leadership coaching firm in the UK. The two books that kickstarted the trend: Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ by Daniel Goleman and Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t by Jim Collins.

“That’s when people started to get really interested in self-awareness. They thought if I’m self-aware, I’m going to be a great leader,” Carden recalled. 

That shift in attitude came decades after the first academic reports focusing on self-awareness emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s, she noted. Back then, self-awareness was characterized as negative because it prompted people to be highly self-critical, said Carden. 

Even though the concept of self-awareness has been around for more than half a century, debate still exists over whether it’s a personality trait that can be changed or a skillset that can be mastered.

“In reality, it is probably some of both. An inherent trait you are born with and a learned skill with room to grow throughout one’s career if you decided to do so,” Church said.   

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Why Is It Important for a Leader to Have Self-Awareness? 

When Hua finally learned the concept of self-awareness and adjusted his behavior to become more democratic and inclusive in seeking perspectives and making decisions, it had a major impact on his relationship with his team.

“It made a positive difference in how people perceived me and how much they trusted me. This improved my leadership effectiveness,” Hua said.

Self-awareness can also help leaders operate efficiently, which is a benefit to their companies.

“Somebody who is not self-aware will more likely go into things headfirst and not be prepared to handle some situations. They may overestimate their ability to handle some challenging projects or whatever the case might be,” Woolley said. “This is a key reason why it can be really valuable for organizations to encourage self-awareness.”

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On the flip side, leaders who are more self-aware are also likely to be more productive because they know which actions and behaviors they should avoid that can be a time sink for them, experts said.

For Laura Edwards-Lassner, senior director of talent management at cybersecurity firm BeyondTrust, she has used self-awareness as a tool since she was in middle school.

Practicing mindfulness and self-reflection in middle school, Lassner became self-aware she needed these tools to help her focus when studying. She’s carried these tools into adulthood and uses them in her personal and professional life to help her ask hard questions of herself on why she’s acting, feeling, or responding to a situation in a certain way.

“Somebody who is not self-aware will more likely go into things headfirst and not be prepared to handle some situations. They may overestimate their ability to handle some challenging projects or whatever the case might be.”

This self-awareness skill made a huge impact several years ago when Lassner worked at a fintech company where she and her boss were investigating an employee for potential misappropriation of expenses.

“We were doing the investigation in an interview style and the employee was getting really combative and disrespectful about the whole process and trying to derail us from getting the answers we needed. I could feel my face getting red with anger and I was becoming very accusatory. I was concerned I would not appear impartial and that wouldn’t get us answers,” Lassner recalled. 

In a blink, Lassner’s self-awareness saved the situation. She took a deep breath, calmed down and then turned to the employee with kindness and empathy and said, “Let’s start over again. Let’s refocus.”

That changed the course of the conversation and Lassner and her note-taking boss were able to get the information they needed from the employee.

“After the interview, my boss gave me feedback. He said, ‘I don’t know what switch went off in your head but you suddenly became a different person. I could see you getting heated and then suddenly you weren’t. I can’t tell you what you did or how you did it, but I’m grateful because we got what we needed.’”

The years of self-reflection and self-awareness paid off for Lassner, who realized her initial reaction in the interview was quickly leading the conversation off the rails and she was able to regroup, she said.

Companies are increasingly offering various forms of self-awareness training to their managers, experts and HR officials said.

BeyondTrust, for example, offers training to all of its managers across the company that includes a self-awareness training component. Throughout her career, Lassner noted she has been through HR-related and non-HR-related programs that offer a self-awareness component.

“I think it would be really helpful to have a bigger spotlight on self-awareness because leaders across every industry could feel more empowered to lead with awareness and in the leadership skills they possess,” Lassner said.

Self-awareness can also benefit companies in other ways too. Managers who are self-aware are more apt to be effective in dealing with employees and keeping them happy, which in turn may reduce expensive employee turnover, Woolley said.


How Do You Use Self-Awareness In the Workplace?

Gaining self-awareness is a two-pronged approach — feedback tools to collect data and 360 feedback from stakeholders to gain insights, said Church. 

“Taken together this type of assessment suite can be extremely powerful,” he noted. 

Feedback tools, such as personality tests, offer self-reported measures to gauge everything from your personality disposition to strategic thinking skills. A number of Carden’s tech clients, for example, prefer taking psychometric personality tests that measure your personality, general intelligence and aptitude as a starting point on their journey to self-awareness, she said. 

A 360-feedback approach, which involves gaining feedback from your direct reports, peers and supervisors, as well as observations, simulations and interviews with others, is one of the best tools for self-awareness growth and career improvement, Church noted. This method yields insight into how others see you, or how you behave in real or simulated situations, which in turn provides information on what you do well and where improvement is needed from a behavioral or tactical standpoint, Church said. 

Proactively asking for feedback at every opportunity is one of many steps toward developing self-awareness after you have taken the initial step toward self-reflection, experts said.

“Asking others for feedback is almost like having a mirror always in your pocket,” Dai said. “There is constant consistency between how you see yourself against how others see you.”

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One way to encourage others to share their true impressions of you is to reveal your own vulnerability, Dai advised, adding this is especially helpful with encouraging direct reports to share their feedback.

Asking these two questions can also solicit valuable feedback on your journey to self-awareness, Carden said. One question asks your direct reports, peers and supervisors what they appreciate or value in you and the second question queries them on what you can do differently and what actions you take that irritates or annoys them.

“You’ve got to ask both questions,” Carden stressed. “You need to be always asking these questions, then really listening to their response, writing them down and thinking about them. There’s going to be moments in your self-awareness journey where you’re going to be uncomfortable with what you hear, but you’re going to have to sit with some discomfort.”  

When facing feedback you don’t agree with, pause and try to understand why they are offering this observation and why they have this mistaken impression of you, rather than get defensive and deny it, Anita Williams Woolley, associate professor of organizational behavior and theory at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business, told Built In.

“Understanding why they may have a wrong impression of you may prevent other people from thinking that as well,” Woolley said. “Find a way to frame the conversation so it doesn’t feel so threatening.”  

Taking advantage of the second before responding is another tool to add to your self-awareness kit, Carden said. Be aware there is a brief moment between feedback given, aka stimulus, and responding. And in this space of time, there is choice, she added.

“Self-awareness tells us what the stimulus or trigger is and self-awareness makes us aware of how we may typically behave or respond. Between stimulus and response, there is a microsecond of space. And in that space there is choice. What we need to do is choose a strategy that is different in the way we respond,” Carden advised.  

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Tips to Gain Self-Awareness

Reading the reactions of others based on their interactions with you may also help your self-awareness. For example, do most people get upset or exhibit stress when you are talking with them, or do they display friendliness and warmth, Dai said. 

Consider pushing yourself out of your comfort zone when at work, because you don’t know what you don’t know, Dai added. This will help you learn more about yourself in terms of what works and doesn’t work, enabling you to become more self-aware.

Setting goals you want to achieve and knowing self-awareness will help you get there can serve as motivation to do the work needed to practice becoming self-aware, Woolley suggested.

Abbas Raza, vice president of engineering and human capital management development at Atlas, finds three top things that help team leads, managers and executives to become more self-aware — practicing mindfulness, leveraging your network and taking small steps.

But for Hua, books on self-awareness and emotional intelligence played a huge role in his transformation, as well as relying on his trusted friends and family to offer candid feedback on changes he needed to make.

Leading with emotional courage may also bring self-awareness to your management style, said Peter Bregman, CEO of consulting firm Bregman Partners and author of Leading With Emotional Courage.

“I have to be willing to feel a variety of things if I’m going to be self-reflective. And if I’m going to develop my self-awareness, I have to be willing to feel shame, willing to feel frustration, willing to feel that I’ve hurt someone,” Bregman said. “I have to be willing to feel these things because it allows me to own them. If you are willing to feel everything, then you can do anything.”

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The Biggest Mistakes Of Self-Awareness

Asking for generic feedback is one mistake Raza made in his journey to become a self-aware leader, he said.

Another common mistake is not checking and self-analyzing the way you tend to interpret feedback.

“I have a personality decoder where I am self-critical. This means I worry I didn’t do well enough, therefore, I look for criticism in messages from others,” Dai said. “Other people only hear the positive in the message. That is a mistake. Just be aware of individual differences in decoding messages exist.”

“What we don’t see clearly about ourselves is often a really important thing we need to change.”

Ego can stand in the way of hearing and acting on critical feedback, which in turn can stunt your ability to become more self-aware.

“The higher up you go in the organization, the stronger the ego,” Dai said. “Why is that? It threatens their self-worth. They deny and reject it because it would mean they are less valuable to the organization or less valuable to the team.”

Learning self-awareness on his own without support was Hua’s biggest mistake, he said. 

“It’s kind of impossible to do because we don’t know what we don’t know,” Hua said. “What we don’t see clearly about ourselves is often a really important thing we need to change.”

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