Self-Awareness: Possibly the Greatest Soft Skill of All

Do You Know Who You Are?

In our uncertain times, self-awareness is an extremely important skill everyone in business could do with. Self-awareness helps leaders and managers understand how they come across to colleagues and teams. And for employees, it’s key to understanding how bosses and colleagues see them and getting on at work. We may not be able to reach total objectivity about ourselves. But improving our self-awareness can transform our working lives.

In this article, we look at what self-awareness is, and its importance in being a good leader, manager or team member. We also consider how to use it to safeguard our wellbeing, and inform our day to day interactions and career decisions. You’ll find some helpful tips on how to develop your self-awareness, and suggestions for further reading. Put your mind to it, and you could change your life!

First Question – What Actually IS Self-Awareness?

The modern concept of self-awareness is based on the idea that we are not our thoughts, but the entity observing them.

Neuroscientist VS Ramachandran has speculated that our brains have evolved mirror neurons, a ‘second-order’ representation of our earlier brain processes. But you don’t need to be a brain surgeon, to benefit from knowing this!

Self-awareness enables you to step outside this part of your mind, and separate yourself from your distracting thoughts and fears.

Here’s Why Self-Awareness is So Important

Self-awareness puts us in control of our lives because it:

  • Makes us better at regulating emotions.
  • Helps us stay in the moment and respond in a considered fashion.
  • Enables us to understand different perspectives.
  • Frees us from assumptions and biases.
  • Helps us build better relationships.
  • Builds our personal “soft power.”

Self-Awareness is the ‘Heart’ of Inspirational Leadership

Green heart drawn on a white wall

Soft power is the opposite of hard power, being hard-nosed and ordering people about. In a work situation, soft power is being able to win people’s loyalty through credibility, appeal and inspiration. Sure, you need to lead your team and get results. But when the job’s done, busy leaders often forget the human side and don’t show appreciation. Being self-aware and focused on your people means everybody wins. They feel good about themselves because they know you value them.

Self-awareness is the most important self-management skill. It contributes to these other attributes:

  • Positivity.
  • Stress management.
  • Responsibility.
  • Productivity.

Mastering your self-management skills puts you on track to a happy and successful life. Personally and professionally. And the journey starts with self-awareness.

How Does Self-Awareness Work?

The drivers in our brain classify every new piece of information with a “reward” or “threat” sensation in our body. If you need convincing, think what it feels like when the fire alarm goes off!

Self-awareness gives the mind space to discover itself, and evaluate our troubling thoughts. Our self-awareness is impaired when we’re stressed or triggered. When our fight/flight reaction kicks in, we go into survival mode. Calm yourself, re-activate your self-awareness, and you’ll see not every thought or emotion is worth reacting to.

And it goes further. By letting us take a detached view of ourselves over time, self-awareness helps us to know our character and motivations. It helps us focus on ourselves and measure our actions, thoughts and emotions against our ideal standards. But lacking self-awareness makes us oblivious to the feelings of our colleagues, people we lead and manage, and external partners. And if we go on like that, it’s going to damage our performance and limit our prospects.

How Do You Know if Someone Lacks Self-Awareness?

Arrogant boss with hands folded in white studio

Mental health experts say to look for these tell-tale signs:

  • They’re regularly defensive. When a person isn’t self-aware, they’re often unable to recognise the ways they might have fallen short.
  • You can’t fully trust them.
  • They’re arrogant.
  • They lack sympathy or empathy.

Note to bosses reading this. Your employees might need taking in hand to reach their targets or whatever. But if this is how they see you, you may not find it easy to handle them!

Self-Awareness Means Setting Your Own Standards

Living up to particular standards can be difficult at work. Bosses, colleagues or employees may not share your ideals.

Leaders and managers cast a shadow by normalising behaviours like bullying, rudeness, lack of respect and poor feedback. And the rest of the team can come to see it as acceptable behaviour.

But that doesn’t mean you have to go along with them. Having your own standards is essential to evaluating your performance and career choices. And that includes recognising it’s time to move on and change jobs because you’re not happy and fulfilled.

Understanding the Different Aspects of Self-Awareness

Here’s a paradox. Children are brought up to think it’s bad to be self-centred, and only think of themselves. But when we’re adults and we’re working, how often do we actively think about ourselves and how we function? Understanding and working on our self-awareness helps us do just that. And it’s good for our health and wellbeing.

Here are Two Kinds of Self-Awareness That Observers Talk About:

Private and public stamped onto brown paper

  • Private self-awareness: Awareness of our internal reactions, and knowledge that we like, or don’t like, particular things, is helpful in work. We mentioned how the drivers in our brain classify everything with a “reward” or “threat” feeling. Listening to our feelings helps us stay focused on creating, or avoiding, particular situations and outcomes. It influences our forward planning and negotiation of deadlines. How else can self-awareness benefit your work today?
  • Public self-awareness: We have the ability to understand how others perceive us and predict how they are likely to react. And we learn from what they do, as it’s happening. If we learn, we become more empathetic and compassionate, which helps us form better working relationships. Hopefully, this means our work becomes more rewarding. But if that doesn’t happen, that’s when our private self-awareness kicks in and tells us it’s time to move on.

Other Observers Talk About These Three Types of Self-Awareness:

  • Body self-awareness: We know when we feel physical sensations. Our body is constantly sending touch sensations and adjusting our posture. But when we’re working, deep in concentration, we often overlook our body self-awareness. We neglect things like eating, hydration, exercise, sleep, and keeping our surroundings clean. Body self-awareness also includes recognising and acting on possible medical symptoms and watching our posture. Sitting working for hours isn’t good! Get up, stretch and move around. You’ll think better.
  • Introspective self-awareness: Recognise your feelings and emotions, and how you react. How would you describe the mood you’re in? What do you need to do next? How do you feel about a particular subject? What do you feel emotionally right now? Remember what we said about the theory of self-awareness. You are not your thoughts, but the entity observing them. If you’re aware your emotions are stirred, try to judge your thoughts like you would with other incoming information. Are your emotions credible, in the circumstances? And how do they fit with what makes you feel comfortable?
  • Social self-awareness: Recognise and understand others’ feelings, and how you make them feel. This means putting our biases aside and looking outwards, to appreciate others. And understanding things from their perspective. This leads to building better relationships and makes us better able to regulate our emotions.

What Causes our Lack of Self-Awareness?

People can fail to understand themselves, their interactions with others and the effects of their actions. It happens for various reasons. And they’re all to do with fear:

  • Fear of being vulnerable: Worrying that others will judge us or reject us, can cause us to remain unaware of ourselves. Living in our own bubble means we don’t tune into other people and connect with them.
  • Fear of our reality shattering: We base our self-esteem on how we see ourselves. And our views may be slightly askew from reality! Listening to others can help us have a more realistic picture.
  • Fear of the truth: We are hardwired with the reluctance to look at ourselves in the mirror. That’s because we might see something we don’t like! And then we will have to decide if we are going to change…
  • Fear of being wrong: Sometimes things go wrong, and we don’t want to admit it. We make mistakes and don’t want to own up to them. But if you admit to them, you’ll find you’re able to make better decisions and build positive relationships.
  • Fear of change: Change can be terrifying! It’s only natural to ‘freeze’ and want things to stay the same. But change can lead to a positive difference in our lives if we embrace it. Every time we have a new perspective shift, we learn things about ourselves we didn’t know before. Change is inevitable. But you can control how you deal with it, by looking inwards and becoming more self-aware. Want to know more? Our change management models article looks at the psychology of change and how to manage yourself and other people.

Now let’s look at ways to build our self-awareness.

Self-Awareness by Numbers

Rows of coloured numbers on a wall chart

Here are some self-awareness tips you might find helpful:

1. Be Open to Change

As we mentioned a moment ago, fear of change can be a barrier to self-awareness. Face the fear, and carry on!

2. Identify What’s Holding You Back

Train yourself to notice what’s stopping you progressing, and then you can start to change direction. This can include things in your personal life, which are distracting you from focusing on work. And habits that affect the clarity of your thought, like drinking a lot. Or, you have habits of thought caused by past trauma and anxiety. These may mean you are easily triggered. Our Window of Tolerance article has some helpful advice.

3. Use Personality Tests to Understand Your Personal Traits

Tests like Myers-Briggs help you reflect on your attitude, behaviours and characteristics. And what drives your decision making.

4. Use Professional Help

Good coaches can be invaluable in providing feedback to enhance your self-awareness. But first, check out their credentials. Be comfortable that they can work with you in the way YOU want. Coaches can also help you unravel previous feedback from other trainers, and put it to good use.

5. Keep Notes on Yourself

When you’re making big decisions, it’s important to make notes of what you’d like to happen. Keep your notes and go back to them and reflect on what actually happened. You can also do this with job applications and interviews. But remember, be kind to yourself!  If you don’t get the job, don’t beat yourself up, it may be for the best.

6. Ask Someone Else

Pick colleagues you respect and trust, and ask them to give their opinions about your personality, needs and values. As they talk, demonstrate self-awareness by asking questions and willingness to listen. This shows the others that you don’t think you know everything, and you want to learn. And that might inspire them to help more people.

7. Listen to Work Feedback Without Justifying Yourself

It’s easy to be defensive when people give feedback on work. But it also means they stop telling you things that could help you do better next time. If you listen, you’re more likely to learn. Also, youll build trust with the other person, so you work better together.

8. Embrace Your Instincts

We talked earlier about the drivers in our brains. They classify every new piece of information with a “reward” or “threat” feeling in our bodies. We’re also programmed for attachment. So we instinctively look for people and situations that will be good for us. These instincts have come through evolution, like the mirror neurons VS Ramachandran speculated about. Learn to recognise what makes you feel good, and go with it.

9. Be Aware of Others

Learn to appreciate others’ strengths and weaknesses, and be tolerant. Be open-minded, and have different kinds of people on your team. Different personalities bring different approaches. Diversity is good for business, because it brings fresh thinking and creativity.

And Finally: 10 More Takeaways and Some Bedtime Reading

Boy reading a book before bedtime

If you’re a leader or manager, self-awareness help you get the outcomes you want. You co-opt people rather than coercing them. They see you as firm but fair,  assertive, yes, but not aggressive. People admire your values, emulate your example and might even aspire to be like you.

10 Top Tips to be Self-Aware at Work

  1. Know when to stop talking, and listen to the other person.
  2. Know your triggers and reactions to them. We’re all different. Understanding what sets YOU off is what matters here.
  3. Consider how others see you: are you triggering other people?
  4. Understand how your present behaviour could affect your future opportunities. And ideally, realise it before you do it!
  5. Think about what you’re doing in your work, and the person you’re doing it for.
  6. Know your strengths and weaknesses.
  7. Realise when you need help, and what help to ask for.
  8. Know when you’re not helping the situation.
  9. Evaluate your performance and work out what you could do better.
  10. React proportionately to feedback. Understand when criticism is deserved, and how to improve.

Some Bed-Time Reading

Bill Gates famously relaxes by reading in bed for half an hour before going to sleep. If you want to know more about all this, organisational psychologist Tasha Eurich has written various books about what it takes to truly know ourselves. ‘Insight: How to succeed by seeing yourself clearly’ is a bestseller, available from Amazon.

And finally, you can also learn a lot about self-awareness from books written by people in difficult jobs. You may have seen the TV series “This Is Going to Hurt.” It’s based on Adam Kay’s diary as an obstetrics and gynaecology doctor. The book’s even better – it’s not only insightful, but it’s also very funny. Enjoy!

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