The Skill of Awareness

There are two different albeit sometimes symbiotic aspects of self-awareness – one is who we think we are and the other is what those around us believe we are. Reconciling internal assessment with external evaluation is a required meta-skill for living a life of purpose and becoming what we really want to be. It leads to an intuitive understanding of what matters, what it is we seek to accomplish and what we need to change to realize our innate potential.

Like all skills, we acquire it experientially, over time, and develop it through mindful, diligent practice. We do this by first accepting and then refining our ever-changing, often conflicting self-perceptions into a more cohesive theory about how best to live our lives. There is compelling and therefore convincing scientific evidence that those who are self aware are happier, make smarter decisions, have better relationships, choose careers that optimize their talents and are more confident, creative and effective in their various life roles. The antithesis of self-awareness is self-delusion. When people are steeped in this self-destructive state of mind, they are invariably the last to know.

The concept of self-awareness dates back to 600 BC when, perhaps most famously, the seven sages of ancient Greece inscribed the phrase “know thyself” at the entry to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Yet the notion of the specific benefits of realistic self-awareness has only been the subject of serious empirical scrutiny for the last 40 years or so, likely coincident with the introduction of “blind spots” and cognitive distortions into psychological parlance.

Two things interfere with the quest for awareness: our reluctance to ask for critical feedback and the reluctance of others to tell us the truth about ourselves. If we were able to solicit and receive feedback openly with grace, reflect on it with courage and respond to it with conviction, we would become more adept at discovering remarkably revealing insights about ourselves from the most unlikely of people. But, as Daniel Kahneman so astutely observed, we possess an almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance about the things that truly matter.

My particular focus, as a designer of instructional programs for professional audiences and as an executive coach, is primarily on those who occupy positions of power or who serve in leadership roles. Although they don’t usually start off any less self-aware than others, their delusion often grows as they ascend the corporate ladder. This is because of the biological fact that power suppresses mirror neurons (or one’s ability to empathize and synchronize behaviours with others). Early success for those in executive positions of responsibility inevitably gives way to a seductive, intoxicating hubris that blinds them to truths they tend to ignore.

Once again, this flows from an inability to recognize our hard-wired (ingrained) biases. Although Freud was correct in identifying the existence of the unconscious, he completely missed the boat on how it worked. We can’t uncover our unconscious thoughts, feelings and motives, no matter how hard we try. (Because they are unconscious – but they do exist and they do determine how we behave.) Our subconscious is not a padlocked door in need of a magical key; it is a hermetically sealed vault, never to be fully opened.

Take motivated reasoning – the belief that we are above (not below) average. By definition, only half of us are. Yet, over 90% of the executives I meet in my classrooms place themselves in the top 10% of their profession. Why the statistical contradiction? They are human beings. And this self-deception starts early in life. A study of a million high school seniors revealed a full 25% placed themselves in the top 1% in their ability to get along with others. Only 2% said they were below average. (One might like to presume the research involved Millennials; it did not. Boomers comprised the sample population.)

Making matters worse, the least competent tend to be the most confident in their abilities. This phenomenon is known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect and has been replicated in dozens of studies on such skills as driving, academic achievement and job performance. Gallup says only 1 in 10 managers can be high-performance leaders, though most would either assume or say they are fully capable of that level of excellence. This astounding statistic is offered by a highly credible organization backed by thousands of longitudinal studies over many decades.

A willful blindness of our shortcomings simply sets us up for failure. While narcissistic leaders are confident in their abilities to make difficult decisions and set a vision for success, they tend to grossly overestimate their skills, dominate discussions around opposing choices, seek excessive recognition, demonstrate lower empathy and are somewhat more likely to behave unethically. While they think quite highly of their leadership abilities, they are rated lowest in effectiveness by their teams. But, being narcissists, they neither want nor listen to feedback. Trust me on this: I have clients who want feedback on everything but their own behaviour.

We live in an era of low self-awareness, as illustrated in the spectacle of selfies and “likes.” This is one indicator of widespread low-grade narcissism. A desire for self-focus constrains self-awareness. It not only obscures our understanding of those around us, it distorts our ability to see ourselves for who we really are. Research has clearly demonstrated an inverse relationship between how special we think we are and how self-aware we actually are. Those who post the most selfies on Facebook or Instagram, for example, have the least awareness of how annoying this behaviour is to others.

Selfie syndrome isn’t a generational phenomenon, nor is it confined to what we like to think is the more self-centered cohort of adolescents. Our growing “me” focus (which equates to a sense of entitlement) can be found everywhere – from contemporary literature to social media to the current occupant of the Oval Office. As the focus on self increases, empathy (the ability to recognize and respond to the needs of others) and the willingness to tolerate legitimate criticism decreases.

To develop the skill of awareness, we need to ask more helpful questions. Peter Drucker once said “The leader of the future will be a person who knows how to ask.” Powerful questions stimulate strategic conversations, surface assumptions and risks, encourage curiosity and forward thinking, focus further enquiry, stimulate even better questions, and “stick” with listeners in meaningful ways.

Self-awareness questions provide the fodder for growth. When we ask “why,” we are generally looking for the easiest or most plausible answer. When we find it, we invariably stop looking further, despite having no clue whether the answer is right or wrong (this is called confirmation bias). Asking “what” keeps us open to discovering new information about ourselves, even when that information is in conflict with our existing beliefs. Here’s one of my favourite what questions: “What do people know about me that I don’t know about me?”

“Why” questions focus us on our limitations; “what” questions help us see our potential. “Why” questions stir up negative emotions; “what” questions keep us curious. “Why” questions trap us in our past; “what” questions help us create a better future. Why is about victimhood; what is about growth. If all this sounds too simple to be true, try asking “what” questions about your inner feelings for a week or so and see what happens to your awareness of what really matters (to you).