Self-awareness is critical to improving leadership skills because it gives leaders the mental space and time to try out new ways of thinking and acting. Self-awareness also enables them to sense the habitual emotions and thoughts that get in the way of acting in the new, more desirable ways.
Let’s look at an example.
Katherine, an audit manager at a large organization, needed to rely on people who reported to other managers in order to get her job done. She had a reputation for being cranky and harsh with them, especially when she felt overloaded by work or frustrated when tasks weren’t being completed. She had heard this feedback earlier in her career. But reading about it in her 360-degree feedback really struck a chord. She decided that she wanted to be able to control these emotions and her behavior so they wouldn’t damage her relationships with the people on whom she depended.
The first step in her change process was identifying and naming the behavior that she wanted to change. She articulated it as, “Speak calmly with people, especially when I am overloaded.” This statement primed her for paying attention to her feelings of frustration and how she spoke with people when she was in a frustrated state.
To help her pay this type of attention she needed to become aware of her feelings of frustration before she spoke. As she focused on this, she recognized the early signals of her frustration. These included her worried thoughts and feelings, along with an array of physical sensations such as: shortness of breath, frowning, and tightness in her chest, neck and shoulders. Becoming aware of these physical and emotional signals allowed her to recognize when she felt frustrated, and reminded her to attend to her feelings before she spoke. By increasing her awareness of when she felt frustrated, she became able to soothe herself and be able to speak from a place of relative calm. She began to use this self-awareness to monitor how she felt, and edit how she spoke, which led to expressing herself more calmly and respectfully.
Like Katherine, all of us can enhance our self-awareness of a behavior pattern by focusing on a few things:
First, be aware of the setting. What are the situations in which the old pattern arises?
Second: What are the physical, bodily signals that begin the old pattern? If the old pattern is anger, it is often signaled by tightening of some muscles, speeding up of heartbeat, reddening of the face, and other physical, along with the emotion of anger.
Third: What are the events that trigger the old thought–emotion–behavior cascade? What does the other person do or say that stimulates the anger?
Once people gain awareness of these precursor events they can shift their attention to the thoughts, emotions and behaviors that will be more effective than the old ones. Then, they can put these into action.
Many successful behavior-change programs use awareness and attention to facilitate change. SmokEnders has clients count the cigarettes they smoke and to observe the emotions and triggering situations that surround their smoking. Similarly, Noom and Weight Watchers ask clients to become more aware of when and what they eat, along with identifying the emotions and triggers that surround their eating.
The practice of mindfulness is a powerful way to enhance our self-awareness. When we focus on breathing, we notice thoughts and emotions appearing in our consciousness. We can sense these and label them. Then allow them to pass through us we re-attend to our breathing and focusing on the present. This way emotions and thoughts wash over us, then recede like waves in the ocean. The practice of mindfulness can help to reduce the power and duration of our feelings and thoughts and bring us back to being in the present moment. This awareness of our emotions, followed by reducing our identification with them, gives us the time and composure to make more conscious choices about how to respond to triggering situations.
But self-reflection is not that common in our action-oriented culture. All but the most self-reflective of us go through life in an active mode; doing things, but not really being aware of the thoughts and feelings that underlie our doings. Most of the time we experience an event, act on it, and notice the result. Then, move on to the next experience. Even when we do pause to ask ourselves, “Why did I do that?”, we often remain unaware of these underlying thoughts, feelings or hidden motives.
The good news is that once a person becomes aware of the behavior they want to change, especially of the thoughts or feelings that underlie it, there is no going back. Awareness can’t be undone. Behavior changers can take hope. When they become aware, they have successfully taken the first step toward change.
Daniel White is a leadership coach, facilitator and organization development consultant who specializes in helping leaders, teams and whole organizations reach their full potential. He works with clients to strengthen their ability to inspire their stakeholders; and align with organizational culture, constituent needs and personal values. Dan serves as coach and facilitator enabling leaders to develop new behaviors and mind-sets that enhance their effectiveness. Dan has been a Guest Presenter at iCoach PCP Program for many years.