Alan Mulally, the celebrated business executive credited with turning around the fortunes of Ford motor company in the late 2000s, remembers an important lesson he took in self-awareness. It was during his first management position as a 25-year-old and he’d been nurturing a promising young aeronautical engineer whom he much admired. He was enjoying mentoring the man, his first employee, and was totally stunned when he handed in his notice, suddenly telling Mulally “I have to get away from you!”
But rather than feeling bitter, Mulally turned the situation into a learning opportunity and discovered from the unhappy engineer that he (Mulally) had been overly controlling and trying too hard to turn the engineer into a carbon copy of himself. “Can you imagine if no one had told me for years, or for decades? What a gift!” Mulally tells Tasha Eurich in her book Insight, the Power of Self-Awareness in a Self-deluded World.
Eurich, who is a psychologist and business consultant, describes self-awareness as “the meta-skill of the 21st century.” Mulally tells her “Throughout my career and my life, there has been one essential truth: the biggest opportunity for improvement – in business, at home, and in life – is awareness.”
Not knowing ourselves can lead us to make bad career decisions, to be overconfident, and to miss learning opportunities. Self awareness, by contrast, shows us our true motives, how we can improve, gives us the chance to address or own up to our weaknesses, and ultimately it makes us better decision makers, colleagues, and leaders (not to mention friends and companions). Unfortunately, without making the effort to become self-aware, most of us are vulnerable to self ignorance, both in terms of what we know about ourselves and how other people see us.
Consider a study of thousands of professionals from various fields. When researchers compared their self-assessments with their actual performance, there was little correlation. What’s more, those of us who are least competent or capable are more likely to overestimate our knowledge or abilities in that area, a phenomenon dubbed the Dunning-Kruger effect after the psychologists who discovered it (in one dramatic example, prisoners rated themselves as more kind and trustworthy than average).
And lack of self-insight, or at least a lack of motivation to become more aware, usually goes hand in hand with weaker performance, especially the higher you climb in your career. Writing at Forbes, Joseph Folkman describes his research on leaders and the seeking of feedback: among the mostly poorly ranked leaders, only 17 percent ask others for feedback, compared with 83 per cent of top-performing leaders.
How to become more self-aware
To learn more about ourselves, our strengths, weaknesses, motivations and fears, the obvious thing to do is to spend time deep in introspection or to keep a daily diary. But Eurich explains that these techniques don’t work, at least not the way that most of us do them. For example, research shows that people who spend too much time reflecting about the self tend to suffer more anxiety and poorer wellbeing (in part because it’s all too easy to slip into rumination, self blame and the search for absolute truths that simply don’t exist). And according to studies by Eurich and others, diary keepers are more self-reflective, but they don’t have any greater insight.
One reason is that people who like journaling often do it too frequently: experts on the emotional impact of writing, such as James Pennebaker, suggest doing it every few days, certainly not every day. And, says Eurich, it’s important to “explore the negative and not overthink the positive” – you should aim to turn confused perceptions of events into “a coherent meaningful narrative” and avoid squeezing the joy out of positive experiences by over analyzing them.
Another way to boost your insight is to ask yourself the Miracle Question (first described in Chip and Dan Heath’s book Switch): Imagine a miracle occurs tonight as you’re sleeping that ripples out and benefits many areas of your life, what might this miracle be? “Think for a moment” says Eurich, “… how is life going to be different now? Describe it in detail. What’s the first thing you’ll notice as you wake up in the morning?”. Eurich gives the example of Matt, a leader who saw all the benefits that would come from realizing that asking for help isn’t a weakness. His solution “wasn’t an oversimplified single action …” says Eurich. “Instead, he envisioned exactly how both he and his employers would change on a far deeper level.”
Also, try daily check-ins. Unlike journaling or diary keeping, these are short, focused responses in which you spend from just a few seconds up to a maximum of five minutes reflecting on how your day went, what worked, what didn’t and how you could do better tomorrow. Eurich cites research with call center workers that found those who performed this daily ritual boosted their performance by 23 percent on average.
Other tricks to self-awareness involve helping yourself see things from a different perspective. Eurich recommends a basic technique called “going to the balcony” (as named by negotiation expert William Ury), which you could also think of as like imagining you are a fly on the wall. Next time you are in an argument or a stressful situation, place yourself outside of it and see how things seem from that vantage point. Similar to this is “zoom in, zoom out” technique. Again, when you’re in the midst of a tricky encounter, zoom into your own perspective and the baggage you’re carrying – maybe you’re tired, stressed or worried about something – then zoom out to the other person’s perspective – ask yourself, what kind of day may they be having? What are they thinking and feeling?
Meanwhile, to find out more what others think of you, you could try the well-known 360-degree technique, in which each person in the team rates everyone else. Or if you’re feeling particularly bold, Eurich recommends the “dinner of truth” during which you ask the other person “the one thing that annoys them most about you.” This approach should be handled with care! Indeed, when it comes to seeking feedback from others, Eurich stresses that it’s important to seek the right kind of feedback from the right people – loving critics are ideal, people who have your best interests at heart, but who are also prepared to be honest.
But whomever you are seeking feedback from, especially if it is of a personal nature, brace yourself for unpleasant surprises – practicing a brief moment of self-affirmation can help with this, which means reminding yourself of your values and what matters to you in life. That way you’re more likely to take on the new information constructively rather than it stinging and making you resentful.
Ultimately, the path to self-insight is a process. It’s an approach to life rather than a chore to be performed over a weekend. “It can be long, difficult and messy,” says Eurich. But she promises that it will be worth it. “If we can get just a bit more mindful and self-aware each day, the sum total of these insights can be astonishing,” she says.