Are you a good worker? How do you sound when you talk at meetings? And how much would your coworkers agree if they heard your answers to those first two questions? While you might already know it’s important to project confidence and competence on the job, there’s a crucial aspect of career success that often (and perhaps ironically) gets overlooked: self-awareness.
Maybe it has never occurred to you to work on this trait — but it is well worth your efforts according to Tasha Eurich, an organizational psychologist and author of the book Insight, which focuses on how to use self-awareness proactively. “People who devote the time and energy to being more self-aware are going to be more successful at work and in life,” Eurich said.
Alas, the majority of people lack self-awareness — and don’t even realize it. For example, when researchers at Columbia Business School examined the negotiation skills of MBA students and other adults surveyed online in a series of 2014 studies, they discovered that people in negotiations tend to be perceived as either more or less assertive than they believe they are, all while they judge their counterparts as either jerks or pushovers.
Developing your self-awareness isn’t just an individual psychological exercise, either: It can actually help you work better with others. Researchers at DePaul University found that teams comprised of less self-aware individuals made worse decisions and were less adept at handling conflict than teams of more introspective people. “Correctly understanding one’s capabilities relative to others is ... paramount,” the authors wrote in the Harvard Business Review.
In other words, it’s worthwhile to do the hard work to understand how you come across. While your journey to greater mindfulness may feel at first like holding a harsh mirror to your face, it could further your career and improve your personal relationships. Here’s a guide to becoming more self-aware at work — and in life.
How can you test your self-awareness?
The first hurdle to self-awareness is assessing yourself — and the second is accurately contrasting that perception to how others see you.
If you haven’t done so before, it could be smart to write down an honest profile of yourself, just for practice: For example, you might think of yourself as a hard worker, but when you dig a little deeper, you might acknowledge that you are often shy in professional settings.
Moreover, if you asked a work friend, you might learn that others do see you as diligent — but aloof. But how can you bridge that gap between what you see and what others perceive? It can help to look for red flags: Some signs that you aren’t as introspective as you could be include avoiding tough conversations, making excuses or passing blame for your actions or behavior, or frequently complaining.
Think through your last week or month at work. How many times did you say something negative, even in private conversations? How have you responded to criticism? Even if it’s just in your head, the impulse to deflect blame can be a sign you need to work on your self-awareness.
Learn to become a neutral observer of yourself, Maria Bogdanos, a certified professional co-active coach, said in an email interview. You can start by asking yourself these questions:
Am I a good listener?
Your answers can give you a better idea about how dialed-in you are to your surroundings and where you might need to do some hard work. If you spend more time waiting for other people to stop talking so you can make your point instead of really hearing what they are saying and giving a thoughtful reply, for example, you may not be a great listener.
Here’s a quiz you can take to test your self-awareness.
Know that self-awareness may come easier to some than others: Biology appears to play a role, as people with more gray matter in the anterior prefrontal cortex tend to be more introspective, according to a 2010 study in Science. A more recent study in PLOS One suggests that self-awareness involves interactions among multiple parts of the brain, including the brain stem, thalamus and posteromedial cortices.
Life experiences also play a role. Some CEOs or other leaders who quickly rose to the top either became less self-aware, and crashed and burned, or rose to the occasion and continued to succeed, according to Eurich’s research.
“We saw leaders time and time again start out as not being very self-aware, but turn it around when they put in the time and energy to develop who they were and see how others saw them,” Eurich said.
How to become more self-aware
If you want to develop your own ability to be more conscious of your strengths, weaknesses and how they are perceived by others, here are some steps Eurich recommends:
1. Schedule a “dinner of truth”
Although this may sound like an episode of The Sopranos, it’s really just an intimate dinner where you get feedback from someone you trust. “Find someone in your life you trust 100%, who has your back and will tell you the truth,” Eurich said. “While you may want to ask a family member, there’s too many feelings and emotions tied with family. Rather, choose a peripheral friend who doesn’t have a complicated history with you.”
Make sure you prep your friend in advance about what you are seeking and don’t be afraid of what they’ll say. “The person asking for the feedback probably anticipates that the other person is going to say something horrible, like that they are a rotten person, but when they receive the actual feedback, they realize it’s not so terrible.” Typically, the behavior is something that can be addressed and changed, and not an inherent character flaw.
If the feedback you receive seems to be out of left field, let the other person know you are surprised and then ask for examples. Ask for an example of the last time you exhibited the behavior: For example, “Was there a specific time you felt I wasn’t listening carefully enough?” That may help take the sting off any unexpected criticism because it narrows it to some specific events as opposed to feeling like an overall character flaw.
2. Decide what you want to do (if anything)
Take a few days, a week or even a month or so before you determine what or how you want to react. Generally, there are three ways you can address the information:
Make a big change: If the feedback can improve your life across the board, move forward with making changes. “For example, someone who has emotional outbursts at work most likely has them at home, too,” Eurich said. “So taking steps to resolve this area makes sense. You can start with addressing this at work, but then you’ll see it come through at home, too.”
Make a small change: The information may not impact every aspect of your life, but will allow you to make improvements in small ways. “Perhaps you tend to lose your temper easily at work, so when you start to lose your temper you can take a breath and realize when it is occurring,” Eurich said. Recognize when you feel your temper acting up and then take a beat.
Do nothing: In some cases, the phrase “I am who I am” applies. If you are a manager and your employees tell you that you are a poor communicator, you may decide that is not something you want to (or can) change. “If you are just wired this way, rather than trying to change your behavior, be more open with your employees and tell the team that although you aren’t a good communicator, you will take certain steps to be more supportive,” Eurich said.
3. Forgive yourself and move forward
You probably won’t like everything you hear. But feeling bad about criticism is only human. Acknowledge how you feel, whether it’s angry, sad or ashamed, and then work on self-acceptance.
“We are so focused on building self-esteem when what we should be doing is looking at self-acceptance,” she added. “Once you can give yourself permission to not be perfect, you can identify what you can control and do something to change that behavior.”
It is important to note that, while journaling and self-reflection are often cited as being helpful with realizing self-awareness, Eurich said she found neither are helpful and that most journaling is rooted on ruminating on emotions. “We found that people who spent more time self-reflecting seemed to be the least self-aware,” she said.
Instead, people who are most introspective make self-awareness a priority and commit to working on it every single day. “The ‘self-awareness unicorns’ in our study practiced the same two beliefs,” Eurich said. “They all said that self-awareness was supremely important and they chipped away at it every day.” The highly self-aware group were evenly spread across race, age, socioeconomic status and gender, as introspection exists across the board.
Need more help? Here’s a guide to handling criticism at work.
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