Know Thyself: How Self-Awareness Can Help Leaders and Their Organizations Thrive

31 May 2023

Know Thyself: How Self-Awareness Can Help Leaders and Their Organizations Thrive

Imagine this scenario:

The manufacturing line in your plant goes down, right in the middle of your peak season. As the head of manufacturing, you get the call that something has gone wrong and that the team is working hard to identify the cause and correct it.

How do you think you’d respond?

The closer you are to an accurate answer, the more self-aware you are. And that’s crucial for anyone in a leadership role, whether you’re in the C-suite or leading a small team.

Self-awareness gets to the heart of how you interact with your peers, how you lead your team, and ultimately how effective you are in your role. It’s difficult to achieve, requiring hard work and intentional thought. Yet, greater self-awareness can pay significant dividends in the workplace, so the journey is well worth the effort.

How Self-Awareness Shows Up (or Doesn’t)

To be a successful leader means making a positive impact on your organization and the people around you, and that requires knowing what could get in the way of your ability to do that. It demands self-awareness.

However, limited self-awareness is not uncommon, and it can manifest in many unproductive and unhealthy ways, depending on our individual tendencies. Some examples of common behavior producing unintended outcomes:

  • If a leader tends to be impulsive, they’re more likely to react to issues rather than respond thoughtfully. That can lead to hasty decisions that don’t consider every angle.
  • If a person has a high need for control, they’re more likely to react to a problem by taking charge vs soliciting ideas. That can discourage others from problem-solving.
  • If a person has trouble dealing with conflict, they’re likely to withdraw when problems arise or tensions mount. But that’s precisely when teams need their leaders to be present and supportive.
  • If a leader is extroverted, thinking out loud and dominating the conversation without realizing it, others may stop contributing ideas. That prevents the collaboration that’s essential to innovation and strong outcomes.
  • If a person tends to be prescriptive because they’re detail-oriented, their team members may stop making decisions or taking initiative. That can stifle creativity and independent thinking, hurting morale and causing talented employees to leave.
  • If a leader is a big-picture thinker and their direct report dives right into the details, they might become impatient and interrupt. That can prove demotivating and discourage others from speaking up.

Our degree of self-awareness is especially evident at times of stress or conflict, when we tend to default to our automatic mode: the mode we naturally fall into when we’re not consciously managing our behavior. Yet, you don’t need to be angry or upset to default to automatic mode. Any time your energy is being consumed by something that occupies your brain—for example, if you’re deeply engrossed in solving a problem—it can prevent you from staying self-aware and keeping out of that default mode of operating.

To be clear, your automatic mode isn’t necessarily all bad. In fact, it’s often described as an overused limited strength: a trait or tendency that has some degree of value and usefulness in limited situations, until it’s overused and turns into a weakness. Knowing when a limited strength has become an automatic mode that hinders getting the job done is a key part of building self-awareness.

Practical Steps for Improving Self-Awareness

When you know how you tend to respond to situations, what pushes your buttons, and what moves you straight to automatic mode, you can work proactively to avoid falling into traps that prove unproductive, or worse.

But how do you figure that out?

Improving self-awareness requires leaders to understand and acknowledge their personality traits and natural tendences—both those that serve you well and those that prevent you from leading as effectively as you could. Even when you encounter situations where you don’t know the other person very well (so you can’t easily adapt your working style to theirs), knowing as much as you can about yourself can help you avoid behaviors you’ve come to see as unhelpful.

This type of self-awareness usually develops through a combination of efforts: lessons learned over time, feedback provided by positive role models or mentors in your professional and personal life, the results of assessments, and the support of an experienced coach. Based on my experience working with leaders and teams across a wide variety of companies and industries, here are my insights on the latter two approaches:

  • Today’s assessment tools have progressed far beyond the versions you might have taken 10 years ago. Their greatest value isn’t in labeling you as a “high control” or “high empathy” person or assigning you a number that corresponds to a quadrant in a model. The real value is in revealing the drivers that underlie your behaviors. For instance, is it important for you to be accepted? To be viewed as an expert? To have a sense of control over your environment? Or to be acknowledged? When you know why you operate a certain way, you gain insights that empower and motivate you to make positive change.
  • Executive coaching is an effective tool for leveraging the insights you gain from the assessment process and turning them into actionable steps to enhance your development. Coaching at the team level can be especially helpful when individual tendencies and automatic modes are fueling team dynamics that are unproductive or even counterproductive. When everyone in the group understands their own behaviors and the drivers behind them, they can begin to see how they’re contributing to the way the team operates—both positively and negatively—and figure out how to work together better.

Building self-awareness isn’t easy. But the benefits will reverberate through your professional and personal life, paying dividends that make the time and effort well worth it.

The Leadership Advisory Practice at Odgers Berndtson helps organizations discover and develop leaders, strengthen value-creating teams, and prepare for what’s next. Learn how our highly experienced assessors and coaches can help you and your team build greater self-awareness, making a positive impact on your organization and those around you.