“When it comes to internal and external self-awareness, it’s tempting to value one over the other. But leaders must actively work on both seeing themselves clearly and getting feedback to understand how others see them.” – Tasha Eurich, HBR
Self-awareness: Not Just a Buzzword
Let’s talk about what it means to be self-aware, but first, a story.
You’re working with a supervisor whom you’ve never worked with before. It’s worth noting that you already have preconceived notions about this supervisor because coworkers have stories and stories follow people around, but you’re a fair person so you give them the benefit of the doubt. You notice they run a tight ship and make a mental note to be on your A-game (as if you aren’t already striving for perfectionism at all times – that’s another topic for another day). After a few hours of working together, comfortability sets in on both ends. They recognize your strengths; you recognize theirs. There is a mutual understanding that “hey, we both can do our jobs and do them well”, and the trust is built. Your supervisor feels comfortable joking with you, walking the fine line between sarcasm and sincerity. There’s a give and take – until it gets personal. Cue the calamity. The comments begin to cross the line from sarcasm to maybe-sarcasm-but-could-have-an-err-of-truth. The mood shifts. The power dynamic becomes ever more apparent.
So what do you do? Maybe you would shrug it off or communicate how you’re feeling. Maybe you would view it as an opportunity to resolve the issue and forge new beginnings. But on this particular day, at this particular time, you shut down entirely. You get introspective. You replay every conversation you had throughout the day on a loop. Then out of left field comes the ask: hey, is everything okay? You’re thinking to yourself that one person cannot truly be this unaware. And the lines of communication open up – a chance for you to speak your mind, apologize for offending them enough to say what they said. And then the kicker, like a David Beckham punt to the face: “What?! I was kidding! I would never say that and mean it!”
So as you were silently cussing them out in your head for the last five hours, they were going on with their day blissfully unaware. Though this may not have been your exact story, you have most likely found yourself in some version of this situation before.
Let’s talk about it.
You know what happens when you assume…
Leaders, I’m talking to you. I don’t care if you’re the president of a Fortune 500 company or the leader of a team at Chipotle, if you lead people, you have to be self-aware at all times. Know that what you say matters because of your position. People hang on to every word when it refers to them, whether personally or professionally, especially if you have the ability to dismiss them from their role or affect their pay. It is not your team’s responsibility to know all of your idiosyncrasies. We’re not saying be a wet blanket. By all means, we highly endorse humor. Laughter is good for the soul after all. But know your audience. Know that the intern who was hired yesterday will probably take, “these copies couldn’t have come any slower if you had handwritten them yourself” to heart, even though you were referring to the painstakingly slow copy machine. The mom that just came back from maternity leave probably won’t receive “we missed you and so did a good night’s sleep apparently“ in the way you intended – and we hope no one would ever say anything along these lines, ever, but you get the point.
Associates, your turn. If you find yourself in this situation, your reaction matters. In retrospect, is avoiding the situation entirely and shutting yourself off from society a good idea? Probably not. Conflict resolution is difficult. Here’s what to do if you end up crossing the line (or possibly crossing the line) from cracking jokes with your boss to cracking your relationship with them.
Consider your biases. What might you previously know about your supervisor that’s coloring your view? Have they made snide comments before that have been piling up in your imaginary log to break the camel’s back? Have you heard office gossip from peers that makes you question their authority? Confront those biases head on and try to isolate each event as a mutually exclusive singular happening. Consider your best friend telling you about this one event with no backstory. Does it still seem like a big deal? If not, it probably isn’t personal.
Find your root cause. What might have caused them to say what they did? Did you jump to the defensive because you felt there may be some truth to it? If the answer is no, odds are it was a miscommunication. If the answer is yes, odds are you should probably communicate more effectively.
In the words of hit artist Lipps Inc, “Talk about it, talk about it, talk about it, talk about it.” Your supervisor is human. You’re shocked and surprised – we know. Talk to them. There is no need to go in guns blazing. If it’s an isolated incident, consider that there may be truth to what was said and apologize if necessary. If it is recurring, talk to them about how you find it hard to tell when they’re joking and when they’re not. Make sure you specify why this is an issue for you and be able to cite specific examples if necessary. They may not realize (as in the above story) that you are taking what they say to heart.
Self-Awareness, a Skill
We like to think we are self-aware and that other people just “know what we mean”. The reality is that this isn’t typically the case. Ten separate studies of nearly 5,000 participants show that only 10-15% of people that believe themselves to be self-aware actually are, but that’s not all. Multiple studies have found that higher-level managers and executives are less self-aware than their lower ranked counterparts – all the more reason to watch what you say and do at the office.
Self-awareness is a habit and like any habit, it takes intentionality and mindfulness. We recommend keeping a journal. Tracking your interactions is key to changing them or at least becoming aware of them. Identify how you’re feeling/behaving throughout the day, and try to steer clear of generic words. Instead of “good”, try “content” or “jubilant”. Putting your emotions into specific, targeted language helps you to better check in with yourself and gauge your feelings throughout the day. If you can’t put your own feelings into words, how do you expect others to?
Body language is key. We can say just as much with non-verbal communication as with verbal. Know what you’re telling people by the way you’re sitting, standing, and gesturing. Harvard Business Review contributor Thai Nguyen suggests videoing yourself in conversation or in the middle of a presentation. Though it might not be pretty, it’ll give you a lot of insight as to how you come off to others and show you areas where you can improve. Besides, good posture is good for you. The super(wo)man pose is one of our favorites. Hit that power pose before a big meeting or after a rough day to regain confidence.
Ask for feedback on a regular basis. Constructive criticism with a balance of positive feedback is a necessary part of your journey to self-awareness. Although it’s not exactly pleasant to hear about our flaws, understanding where the feedback is coming from is vital. If you’ve asked for it, you are setting yourself up to be open to change. Be sure that who you’re asking for feedback from is someone you trust to have your best interests at heart. Stanford GSB lecturer Carole Robin says, “People who don’t receive feedback well are much less likely to get feedback and therefore forfeit the opportunity to learn about the impact of their behavior on others.”
Like any skill, becoming self-aware doesn’t happen overnight. Take each day as it comes and be intentional about every interaction you have. How different would your life be if every word out of your mouth came from a mindful and aware place?