“Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom” – Aristotle
In a recent blog post I talked about the transformational leadership course I’m involved in. One module of this is learning about “Emotional Intelligence” i.e the soft side of managing others which begins with managing yourself, and a key element of that is “self awareness” i.e knowing yourself.
This has several elements – one is recognizing and understanding who you are and where you come from and how your origins and upbringing and experience impact how you are and how you see the world. Another is having a realistic understanding of recognizing your strengths and weaknesses, and of how well you performed in any particular instance. Yet another is understanding how others perceive you and how this affects how they interact with you.
Self awareness is not easy. There are a number of challenges including:
- In the workplace at least we are encouraged to think of ourselves as objective and neutral i.e. that we look at any situation based on the facts not on our personal views. The problem with this is that it isn’t really true. We see any situation or any new person through the lens of our own experience. So it’s much better to be aware of how our conditioning (gender, nationality, class, family circumstances, education etc.) affect how we see the world so that we can then examine how this is affecting our decisions and on how this might be a factor when we disagree with others on how to interpret “the facts”.
- We often try to suppress our emotions, rather than acknowledging them and how they affect our decision-making, instead we might try to rationally justify our actions which are really driven by how we feel. One tool we used for this was to check off emotions from a long sheet of words over a 24 hour period – it’s quite surprising how many emotions you can feel in a short period when you are paying attention!
- We often have a different perception of ourselves than others have of us. Various studies show how we often overestimate how attractive, intelligent or kind we are. Part of the challenge is that we seek positive reinforcement to justify our actions, and are less likely to seek, or accept negative feedback (also because it affects our emotions negatively). But it’s also because others are often reluctant to give us feedback for fear of hurting us or for our reaction. Sometimes we also miss seeing hidden strengths that others see. To help address this we need to actively seek feedback, including being aware of our emotions and reactions when that feedback is challenging, and to be most beneficial that feedback should be diverse not just from our friends. We need to also create safe spaces for feedback and to make use of tools that can help us collect it (including anonymously) – as an example of this we looked at the Johari Window which can help us see the differences between others perceptions and our own.
- We often fail to remember and learn from the past – in terms of what we were thinking, how we were feeling and what we achieved. Keeping some form of journal or record of thoughts, achievements, setbacks etc. can be useful in helping us learn from our own experience, but also to give us a more balanced and complete view on our own experience.
- Getting too much negative or challenging feedback can be difficult in itself as it can negatively affect your emotions lead to de-motivation and loss of hope, unless you have a clear idea of what you seek to be and some support mechanisms either personal or institutional to help you figure out how to get there. Giving people tough love feedback without any coaching, training or peer support is just not helpful.
But self-awareness is not only a challenge for individuals, it’s also a challenge for the teams and organizations we work in. Quite often they create their own self-image which differs from our image in the eyes of others. Like individuals, organizations need to understand their history and their organizational culture in order to understand their present situation and why they are the way they are – and often why they make the decisions they do which are often less based on “cold logic” than how they are described and justified.
Organizations can and do put efforts into objective measures of their progress (how much money did they raise and spend, how many vaccines did they distribute, how many government counterparts did they train etc.) which can be more informative that whatever we do on a personal level, but they are much less strong in seeking feedback on the perceptions or views of others, especially those they are seeking to help ( a common topic on this blog, and one for which there are various approaches we should be using more).
For both individuals and organizations self-knowledge is the first step to self-improvement. we can’t keep kidding ourselves that by describing and promoting ourselves as they way we would like to be will be enough to convince others, or even ourselves. When we feel the tension, which is a creative tension, between who we are and who we want to be this is powerful motivator for change, and one that also helps us focus on where we need to put our best efforts.