Most people believe they are self-aware, but true self-awareness is actually an extraordinary quality. Even if you find the unicorn who is self-aware and sees themselves clearly, they may have no clue as to how others perceive them.  

A study reported in the Harvard Business Review examined what self-awareness really is, why we need it and how we can increase it. After surveying nearly 5,000 participants, researchers found that only 10%-15% of people actually fit the criteria of being self-aware. The study also revealed that there was virtually no relationship between the two types of self-awareness: internal awareness and external awareness. Just because someone has high internal awareness, it does not mean they have equally high external awareness. Just like your motivation can either be internal or external, so can your awareness.  

Internal Awareness 

Internal awareness is knowing yourself and understanding your triggers. Someone who has internal awareness has a good grasp of their emotions and thoughts. They are aware of both their strengths and weaknesses. They can navigate their inner landscape because they know the reasons behind their behaviors. They understand their feelings, emotions and moods and the impact they have on how they act.  

Related: Feelings, Emotions and Moods: How to Say What You are Experiencing 

For example, if someone is procrastinating on a project, they would be internally aware if they understood the reasons behind the procrastination. If an executive is putting off working on a project that he knows will require deep work where all distractions are eliminated, yet doesn’t schedule the time on his calendar to work on it, he understands that a lack of time and commitment is causing him to procrastinate. His internal awareness is able to identify the issue so now, he needs to block off time on his calendar to get the work done.  

External Awareness 

External awareness is being able to observe others and understand how your actions impact them. We often call this skill the ability to “read the room.” If you understand how others see you, you are more likely to show empathy and take into consideration other peoples’ perspectives. The same study showed that leaders who understood how their employees see them tend to have better relationships with those employees.  

We’ve all been in a meeting where someone gets upset and the mood shifts. Someone who is externally aware will feel the energy changing in the room and attempt to diffuse the situation.  

Why a Leader Needs Both Types of Awareness  

When it comes to these two types of awareness, it can be easy to try to prioritize one over the other. But leaders need to work on achieving both types of awareness. They need to have a clear picture of themselves while constantly receiving feedback as to how others perceive them.  

When you manage people, you have to be able to understand what is going on in their world, because they won’t often tell you. Are your employees stressed, happy, overworked, challenged enough? A good leader constantly has their antennae up, picking up on signs.  

Awareness is also important for collaboration. An aware leader will be able to notice whether their team is working well together or if some adjustment needs to be made.  

I recently worked with a an executive coaching client named Dennis (not his real name) who repeatedly mishandled comments, pleas and direct requests from employees that they needed more support and resources. They were burned out, and they weren’t keeping quiet about it. Like a lot of employees in many different companies right now, they had been asked to do more with less. Dennis didn’t see, hear or didn’t grasp the gravity of the requests. As a result, attrition rose, employees called in sick at the last minute, and there was an overall general loss of productivity. Through our coaching, Dennis began to see how he needed to give more merit to and pay greater attention to these issues being presented to him by his employees.  

Awareness is Not Binary 

Awareness is not something you either have or don’t. There are degrees of awareness, and it exists on a spectrum. Often, a lack of awareness comes to the forefront because of some kind of external factors that aren’t going your way.  

For example, consider another coaching client who believed herself to be really talented, an excellent worker and could not understand why she was being looked over for promotions. Olivia (not her real name) blamed the managers for playing favorites and not seeing her contributions. During coaching, she began to see other ways in which those around her were perceiving her. Olivia thought she was an assertive leader who got things done, where others experienced her to be a bully, harsh, blunt and unable to take others’ viewpoints into consideration.  

On the flip side, another client named Ben (not his real name) had difficulty seeing how well-liked and effective he was. He had low confidence and didn’t believe the accolades he received. Ben couldn’t understand why he kept getting promoted when he didn’t think he was doing anything special. We worked to help Ben expand his viewpoint to include the impact he had on others as well as to help elevate his confidence and stop eschewing recognition.   

How to Improve your Awareness 

In Olivia’s case, she improved her external awareness by asking others for feedback and being receptive to it. Whenever she was in a meeting, she started checking in with her colleagues regularly to see how they were feeling. By doing that, she gained a better sense of how she was being received and could adjust her behavior to create a more positive relationship with her colleagues.  

Ben used MindMastery to improve his internal awareness.  He learned to take control of his thoughts, moods, and perspectives to improve his performance. He eventually understood that his lack of confidence was sabotaging his success and was able to make some sustainable change in order to further his career.  

Highly self-aware leaders are constantly working to keep the scale between internal and external awareness balanced. They seek honest feedback and try to see themselves more clearly so that they are more effective leaders.  

Working with the Unaware 

We already know that there are more people who think they are self-aware than really are in today’s workplace. Another survey conducted by self-awareness expert Tasha Eurich and reported in Harvard Business Review shows 99% of participants work with at least one such person, and nearly half worked with at least four. So, what can be done? If you can determine someone is suffering from a lack of self-awareness, you can try to help them become more aware. But the odds are against you. The survey found that although 70% of people with unaware colleagues have tried to help them improve, only 31% were successful.  

If you think you can help, Eurich suggests three strategies: 

  1. Talk to them in person, not via email which is less successful. 
  2. Time it right, by waiting for your colleague to bring up a situation that you believe is being caused by their unawareness. 
  3. If they are receptive, offer effective feedback which includes preparing for the conversation, avoiding the “sandwich approach” of providing a criticism between two compliments, and avoiding biases. 

It takes courage, commitment and humility in order to make improvements in self-awareness, but it is possible. We can’t control the self-awareness of others around us, but we have complete control over our own.  

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