How to Increase Your Self-Awareness

From birth, humans begin developing self-awareness, starting with reflexes in infants and maturing to not only an awareness of oneself as an individual, but also an awareness of one’s self as seen through other people’s perspectives.

Developing self-awareness isn’t relegated to childhood, nor should it be quarantined to the discipline of psychology and mental health. On the contrary, professional adults who foster and practice self-awareness can benefit from fine-tuning this skill.

What is Self-Awareness?

Organizational psychologist and executive coach Tasha Eurich, together with her team of researchers, examined self-awareness through 10 different studies and with almost 5,000 participants, which Eurich explained in the Harvard Business Review. Eurich’s research estimates that a mere 10-15% of people are truly self-aware. Why? Because there is more to self-awareness than simply recognizing oneself as an individual, and it takes work to fine-tune this skill.

At a high level, self-awareness can be divided into two categories: external, or public, awareness and internal, or private, awareness. External awareness is the way a person understands how others see him. Typically, this type of awareness drives people to follow social norms and to appear acceptable and likable. Internal awareness is the way a person understands herself, like realizing that a supervisor’s presence causes feelings of nervousness.

Why is Self-Awareness Important?

In the workplace, high self-awareness can drive job and relationship satisfaction, improve personal and social control, increase happiness, and reduce anxiety, stress, and depression, according to Eurich’s study. Not to mention by better understanding your tendencies, it’s possible to offset or capitalize on them as needed.

For leaders, acute self-awareness can balance the spreadsheet-and-numbers-driven approach lauded in business school with a reflection on your leadership style and an improved understanding of the way employees perceive your actions. In a survey published by the Harvard Business Review, leaders at the highest organizational levels demonstrated better self-awareness levels than those in lower levels. And, as HBR highlights, whether that is because stronger self-awareness drives promotions or larger leadership roles mandate improved self-awareness, self-awareness is demonstrated as a critical skill for successful leaders.

Self-awareness is a vital skill for professionals at any level of an organization, and improving self-awareness is a practice worth pursuing.

Ways to Improve Self-Awareness

By applying these approaches, you can increase your self-awareness, both in your business and personal life.

  • Instead of “why,” ask “what.” To better guide your introspection, transition from asking why, to looking for patterns by asking what. For example, instead of asking “Why did I make that mistake?” ask “What can I do to move forward, and what would I do differently the next time?” 
  • Build with balance. Skewing your self-awareness skills to be either too externally focused or too internally focused can yield negative results. For example, a person who strives only to be perceived well by others may become too concentrated on people-pleasing, and neglect their values. On the other hand, a person focused only on their perspective may miss critical feedback from others. Instead, be mindful of both types of awareness.
  • Welcome feedback. Without encouraging honest feedback, it’s difficult to hone your self-awareness. Instead, request input from all types of roles. Formally, using a 360-degree feedback format, which uses multiple levels, both lower and higher ranking, to review a leader can offer valuable perspective. Feedback also doesn’t have to be in the form of a formal review. Pay attention to what people say to you – friends, coworkers, family – and instead of feeling defensive, listen and use that feedback to question your own biases.
  • Record and track your progress. Write your goals down, and track how you progress toward them. Over time, this establishes a historical perspective and helps you weigh in-the-moment decisions against your real priorities. You can also use this space to examine experiences and choices. 
  • Take a break. Put your introspection, assessment, and reflection on pause sometimes to allow yourself a recharge. You may even find you’re more engaged when you come back. Pray, meditate, exercise, or undertake a recreational activity. 
  • Prioritize self-reflection. Professor of management practice at Harvard Business School Bill George recommends making this a daily practice, to focus on what is most important to you, and to establish a stronger sense of well-being.
  • Consider context. Understanding when to use a personality trait and when to adjust it can be critical. For example, humor may be a strong asset when it comes to defusing a tense interpersonal situation, but cracking jokes in a large meeting may be disruptive.
  • Become a lifelong learner. Don’t stop developing your self-awareness, asking for feedback, or challenging your perception with next experiences and perspectives. Increasing your self-awareness is a lifelong journey.
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