A Leader’s Self-Awareness Checklist
Self-awareness is all about finding out what’s bad about you and fixing it
Author, Stacy McCarthy
What is Self-Awareness?
A recent study of 4,500 people by the Hay Group showed that 19% of women and 4% of men were self- aware. In another study it showed, the more you advance in your career, the less self-awareness you tend to have. Could it be that you start believing your own press, or is it just that you simply don’t have the time to reflect? Either way self-awareness is the essential, yet often invisible, piece to the puzzle of exemplary leadership.
Intuitively, it might seem that self-awareness is all about finding out what’s bad about you and fixing it. But that approach might lead you more towards self-focus or self-consciousness which is not quite as effective. Self-awareness has two parts – the first is knowledge of your values, motivations and triggers; how you are feeling, and the second part is how others perceive you. Self-awareness is you existing in a system, not about you alone. On the other hand, self-focus is all about yourself: what do you get, what do you want. Nobody else exists in the equation.
Self-consciousness tends to occur when you lack confidence, and are constantly wondering what your actions will look like to others. When you’re self-conscious, you’re also thinking about yourself, but in a way that highlights your insecurities or perceived flaws. You start fixating on what’s wrong with you, not on the problems that need to be solved, the other people in the room, or your impact. If you’re constantly using energy to beat yourself up, you will find it even more difficult to perform at your best.
Self-awareness is more about asking “what” and not “why”. What am I often triggered by? What did I do in this situation and how can I do it better? If you ask “why”, you end up cross-examining yourself in a harsh way and are metaphorically picking up a hammer and hitting yourself in the head. Self-awareness should lead you to solutions, not self-criticism. Approach it positively, if you’re always beating yourself up, you are wasting your time, energy and hurting your own self- confidence, making it even harder to achieve what you want.
Areas Where Self-Awareness Can Be Applied
The first step to being more self-aware is to do a deep dive to understand who you are. This includes identifying your values, your motivations – why do you do what you do, as well as your triggers or saboteurs. There are several areas in which you can apply self-awareness as a leader, and as a result, steer your team towards growth and success. Self-awareness will help you set the tone of how you do what you do, give and receive feedback more effectively, deliver your message impactfully, as well as be a happier person in general.
Thoughts & Emotions. Has someone’s behaviour ever elicited a disproportionately intense reaction from you? It’s likely that you’ve been triggered by something. They may have stepped on a key value of yours or triggered you in an area where you have had previous scar tissue, many of which are subconscious. If you don’t identify your values, triggers or saboteurs, you’re preventing yourself from achieving your full potential, because you will allow your brain to be hijacked. As a result, you can’t be fully present, listening and solutioning. In addition, these triggers and saboteurs shape your emotions, which then produce thoughts and behaviours that aren’t optimal. All in all, you are not at your best.
Generally, saboteurs are a result of incidents that might have left an impact on you well in your past, and you’ve put these “triggers” in your subconscious memory. You might have had overly critical parents, for instance. As a result, you may spend large portions of your energy guarding yourself against criticism. The more time you spend being defensive, the less you’re able to focus on where you want to go and how to reach the best solution.
While saboteurs may have helped you in the past, they currently may be preventing you from reaching your full potential. Understanding the specific factors that trigger you will help you to get them out of your way. You can visit the ‘Positive Intelligence’ website to take a free assessment that will help you identify your saboteurs.
Another way of finding your triggers is to be more mindful of how you react to certain things. Someone once told me that they hate people who are emotional. I encouraged them to look deeper. What is it about someone being emotional that bothers you? How do you walk through that? What are you assuming because someone might be emotional? Once you have that information, you are in a better position to evaluate your response. Again, I would personally avoid asking ‘why’, because the answers you get come from your inner ‘judge’ who is almost always harsh and critical. Instead, asking ‘what’ and ‘how’ – these questions, will help you get real information from which you can see more clearly your triggers, behaviour patterns, and so on, so that you can choose to change them if you want. When you ask why – like “why did you do that” – you immediately go into defense mode.
There is truly a fine line between thoughts, emotions, and behaviours, and these three areas often tend not to be mutually exclusive. Behavioural scientists talk about the fact that you really cannot separate these three things. So if you think about it – you can receive the same information but on one day when you are happy, you will think about it and respond (act or behave) in an entirely different way, than if you get the same information on a bad day. Our minds and bodies are so closely intertwined. You know the adage, if you are unhappy, smile and your mood will elevate. If you want confidence, do a power pose (stand like Superman). Neuroscientists have studied this, and say it takes just two minutes of a physical change to alter your mood.
Ultimately, knowing your triggers will help you to better manage your thoughts and emotions.
Interaction With Others. The second part of being self-aware is understanding how others perceive and react to you. When it comes to interacting with others, there’s often a disparity between intent and impact. You can set out to do things with the best intentions, but the impact of your actions can be incredibly negative. In the diverse world we operate in, you’ll need to take into account other frameworks that people use to shape their identity. These could include cultural or family constructs, for instance.
I was at a luncheon in Delhi, where a New York Times columnist – a white male – was speaking about poverty in India. One of the women in the audience, who was rather elderly got very offended. She perceived what he was saying as a means of belittling India and Indians, even though the speaker wasn’t using any of those words. She was taking some of her own insecurities, and leftover feelings from the days of being colonised and projecting them on his talk. The speaker, meanwhile, didn’t understand where she was coming from, and continued to defend the statistics he presented.
As a bystander, it was clear to me that while they were actually aligned, they were fighting two different battles. When I stepped in to rephrase what he said to reflect India in a positive light – as a young country with exciting challenges ahead – she was able to see his point with more clarity. In this case, the speaker was clearly not able to suss out how his message, delivered with the best intentions, was being received.
Imagine someone handing you a pair of scissors. If they unthinkingly hand it to you with the sharp end facing you, your brain is immediately thinking of how to ensure you don’t get jabbed. If they hand you a pair of scissors with the handle first, your brain spends no time on that thought and just takes the scissors. Similarly, consider how your actions and words will be received by the people involved to make sure your good intentions don’t get lost in translation.
“If you want to change people you need to work alongside them, you can’t just force them to change”
Honesty doesn’t have to be brutal. It can simply be honest but in a kind manner where the person knows that you are on their side. When they know they’re supported by you, they can receive your feedback better. If you find your team member reacting badly, take a moment to adjust how you’re conveying your message and try to express your support to the person while helping them to become better.
Recently, I worked with a senior executive of a company to look over a 360 review. This person, who is genuinely a nice and thoughtful man, was seen to be prejudiced. What made people think he was prejudiced? This executive was from a culture that was direct and stern, whereas he was working in a culture where people were more hierarchical, indirect, and sensitive. While he was doing right from his cultural perspective, telling it like it is, his team in another country felt beaten up and disrespected. It wasn’t his intention to be prejudiced, but it came across that way.
Ask yourself what goggles you have on at any given point in time. On a good day, you can have your rose-tinted glasses on, and you’re a lot more forgiving of the things people might say. On a bad day, the same statement will hit you sideways. Being aware of this will help you to assess your reactions more objectively.
All of us have different lenses we put on – cultural, family, gender, mood, life experience – you name it. So when you are speaking with someone and the reactions are not as you would expect – you are probably having a different lens moment. That is a great time to pause, and ask some questions to seek to understand the other person. Most likely they have other lenses on and it will affect how you are perceived, heard, or received.
Values. As a leader, I was happiest and most successful when I asked myself what my values were, and what I wanted to achieve no matter what. I told myself I wanted to be kind, and being competitive, I also wanted my team to be really good at what we did. As a result, my team went on to be the best region globally by all operational metrics – but they did so by being helpful to others, by leading with trust and just pushing hard to do newer and better things.
One of the highlights of my working career was my going away dinner when my team spoke of my kindness and my business partners spoke about how good this team was. I walked away feeling so satisfied and happy. I achieved what I wanted and felt I also proved to other leaders – you can be kind and still be the best. I felt a deep satisfaction on both personal and professional levels.
Because I was able to find internal alignment, I wasn’t fazed when stressful situations came up. Now did that mean I did things my way all the time? No. There were times where I still had to follow directives that I didn’t particularly agree with. Yet I was able to do so in a way that aligned with my values, therefore allowing me to feel happy about myself. When you operate within your value set, you set yourself up for more success and less stress. On the other hand, if you’re not clear about what your values are, you can easily get pulled off course and not be your authentic self, living your values – that will be immediately stressful. Tapping into your values will help you feel more grounded and steady.
One way to identify your values is to notice when you’re triggered or angered. If you find that you’re consistently upset when you see injustices happening to yourself or others, it could signal that fairness is a value that holds significant meaning to you. Similarly, look at situations that bring you immense joy to uncover your values as well. Think of your heightened emotional states as a trail of breadcrumbs that will lead you to identifying your values. List what you think the top five are and reflect on them occasionally to see if you need to refine that list. The next step is figuring out how you will operate according to these values.
Previously, there was a manager in my team whom top executives loved. Yet employee engagement surveys were awful. I was really surprised, so I called him up. We both agreed the scores were really bad and not sustainable. I offered him my help in turning things around, which he immediately accepted. I advised him to tell the team that he had asked for my help and for me to speak with them directly. This was in Japan, where leaders being vulnerable was not the norm. I spent two hours with his team without him. It turned out that there were some small things he did that were affecting them disproportionately. With clear, constructive feedback and support, the manager was able to achieve top tier engagement scores in two years. There were people who wanted me to fire him but for me and my values, this was an opportunity to choose kindness. I embodied my values to help someone succeed.
I was once asked – should I hire someone with the same values as me? Heavens, no! You need to have some overlapping values but to fully appreciate and utilise diversity, you should hire people with values and strengths different from your own. Diversity opens up your solution space and increases your probability of getting the best solution.
I’m a strategic thinker, who likes to take risks and big leaps – I tend to think big and broad and don’t worry too much about the details. I once led a team and had someone on it who was very meticulous and detail oriented. Initially, I found that she slowed me down greatly. However, during the project, her strengths and values helped me avert a major disaster that I would have otherwise overlooked. Once I saw that, I tried to put her on other teams I ran since I knew that she was strong where I was not. If you hire a team full of people who mirror your own values, skills, etc., you don’t cover each other’s blind spots.
Of course, when it comes to certain non-negotiable values like integrity, it’s alright to hire for these values. It’s also important to articulate values as a leader. When you have certain company values or personal values that need to be inculcated in a team, it’s important to bring up these values and enforce them. I’m very clear with my team that I’m always there to support them but they need to be very honest with me. Integrity is a non-negotiable value that everyone in my team needs to have. If you lie to me, you will lose my trust and once you’re off my trust island, it’s very hard to get back on it. What are your non-negotiable values? Communicate these values and hire for them, or you’ll end up fighting battles that don’t actually bring your team ahead. But those non-negotiables should be few.
Abilities. If you’re presented with a great opportunity and find yourself shying away from it; going into a doomsday scenario – “I can’t”, I am not good enough, etc., you’re likely not in a growth mindset. Your triggers or saboteurs are the voices of your insecurities that keep you from growing. Instead of embracing the challenge that lies ahead, you’re focused on your weaknesses and what might go wrong. The good news is that once you’re able to identify your triggers, you’re able to manage your response to them.
As Carol Dweck, a psychologist who writes about growth mindsets says, just add a ‘yet’. If you think you’re not good at public speaking, rephrase that to “I’m not good at public speaking yet.” This opens you up to the possibility and joy of learning something new instead of the fear of failure. In fact, the CEO of Spanx shared once that one of the best things she learnt in her family came from her father. Every night at the dinner table, he would ask what did you fail at today? Then he would ask, so what did you learn? Failure was just a learning tool – it became something to look forward to and learn from.
When you stop failing and learning, you stop growing. As a leader, it isn’t your job to know all the answers – that’s simply not realistic. It also isn’t your job to be great at everything. But what you can do instead is to be open to learning together. Don’t readily provide answers, even if you have them. Hang back, provide frameworks for thinking through problems, but ultimately give your teams the room and safety to make mistakes. Help build the boat, but don’t be the one steering it to shore all the time.
One of the ways I helped facilitate shared learning in my teams was through a Book Club that met thrice a year. I started it by choosing the first book – after that they chose them all. Together we read and discussed our thoughts on the books, connecting as human beings, positively challenging each other with the things we learned. Growth and change became a constant discussion.
Put It All Together. If someone is behaving in a manner that seems problematic, don’t be hasty in writing them off. We’re all human beings at the end of the day, and we deal with a host of issues in our lives that could very easily colour our interactions with other people. As a self-aware leader, your role is to help your teams work together. If yours is a high performing work team – they’ll actually appreciate and support each other as human beings. As much as you can, operate from a space devoid of preconceived notions, assumptions, or judgement. Always ask yourself, what am I assuming here?
When an exchange is going poorly – step back and ask what the other person may be trying to convey or perceive. If you have had a negative exchange with someone where things did not go well and they might have acted poorly – don’t write them off and put them on your enemies list. Give them grace, in other words, let it go. Assume they have a positive intent – they might be going through a divorce, sick child, something else having nothing to do with your conversation. Always give grace to yourself and to others.
Talk to people when something goes wrong. Be open, admit the exchange did not go as you would have thought and ask them the “what questions” to seek knowledge – not to prove you were right! When you connect on this level, you are more likely to find alignment with each other.
Lastly, be open to being wrong without taking a hammer to yourself each time that happens. Always think about how you have improved, and what every experience is teaching you. When you are overly critical of yourself, you’re only eroding your own confidence. I used to tell my team – when you attack yourself, it is like starting a war by shooting yourself in the face. Not really helpful! Be kind to yourself, build yourself up. Reframe mistakes as learning opportunities where you have been upskilled.
Steps to Take in 24 Hours
Know Your Saboteurs. Take an assessment to identify your saboteurs. Alternatively, you could ask someone you trust to share honest feedback about how you show up on a bad day. Make a list, and check if a pattern emerges – these are your saboteurs. Now explore them and understand what they are doing for you that is positive and what might they do that is not so positive.
Define Your Top Five Values. What are the top values that holistically encapsulate what you stand for and how you go about your life? When you hold yourself accountable to your values, you will be less prone to being steered off course by external influences. You will also feel a great deal of joy in this authenticity.
Focus on the Long Term Vision. If you are constantly focused on what is in front of you, you risk losing sight of the big picture. Avoid expending energy on smaller battles that involve ego and the here-and-now, and think instead of how to align with your values to work towards your long-term goals.
Stacy McCarthy is the former Regional Director at The Boeing Company.