Leaders must be self-assured; it comes with the territory. When they make a decision they must believe in it to ensure that direct reports do the same.
Whether it’s in the boardroom or in the field, the circle of nods that come with an excellent idea can be a weight off any leader’s shoulders. However, like all humans, leaders are not infallible; and in some cases, their decisions can be wrong, misdirected or inapplicable.
Great leaders are aware of this, which is why they tend to rise to the top. But self-awareness can be clouded and – like all leaderships skills – it must be practised.
Watching you, watching me
Self-awareness is a universal trait among humans, and a significant developmental milestone. From about the age of 2, a human will develop the ability to identify who they are.
Highly developed self-awareness is hugely important to the success of leaders as it’s the foundation for empathetic actions. Daniel Goleman, for instance, believes an openness to our own feelings can facilitate our understandings of the emotions of others.
However, empathy, or the ability to understand the experiences and emotions of others is not always active. In many cases, people turn it off or in other instances, it can become clouded by the organisational power in their hands. A study from Northwestern University, Professor Adam Galinsky and others, found that power can and does inhibit empathy.
Galinsky argued that “reduced perspective-taking”, as he called it, may be an automatic response. If it is, it’s all the more reason for leaders to take the time to combat the common phenomenon.
So what can businesses leaders do to ensure they’re aware of the impact they’re having?
Building self-awareness from the outside in
One of the most effective ways to accomplish this in the business world is by placing yourself in environments where you receive honest and productive feedback. In my experience, there are three effective ways to build a sense of yourself and thus consequently your ability to empathise with others.
1. 360 degree feedback
Whether informal or formal, being part of a system or process whereby you receive confidential and anonymous feedback from the people you work with can give you valuable direction. It offers insight into a leader’s strengths and weaknesses, giving you all the information you need to develop your skills and understanding.
A psychological test can also offer a snapshot of your key characteristics. While many organisations use psychometric testing for new employees, it’s not often used on incumbent employees. Yet the tool has the potential to improve your self-awareness as well as offer insight into your personality and how it impacts your decisions.
Be it a board, an experienced leader or an appointed Chair, the aim is to have an auxiliary party who is able to give you feedback on how you are interacting with people. This is especially important for how you interact with staff down the hierarchical ladder, as reduced perspective-taking tends to affect interactions with the less powerful more than others.
While many see coaching and mentoring as solely focused on business strategy, or being better financially, this is far from the truth. Really effective coaching works intimately at this level of self-awareness.
Business leaders often lack the spare time to work on themselves. Instead, leaders need to allocate time; simply putting time away to reflect on your position can be a transformative experience.
In fact, CEO of venture capital firm Cue Ball, Anthony Tjan, wrote in the Harvard Business Review that the best action business leaders can take is to become more aware of what motivates them and their decision-making.
Whatever the method, the end goal should be the same. Developing greater self-awareness can ensure you have the basis needed to develop effective interpersonal relationships. Being able to galvanise staff to challenge, motivate and lead starts with a foundation of self-awareness.