The One Thing Leaders Need Most, According to a Psychologist

And how to cultivate it in yourself.

Photo by Dingzeyu Li on Unsplash

When I think of the concept of self-awareness, I immediately think of my feelings and how I’m acutely aware of them at all times (thank you, years of therapy). I call it a gift, but a gift implies it was given, and this certainly was not. So what is self-awareness really? This is the question that Tasha Eurich, an organizational psychologist and executive coach, began to ask herself several years ago. 

“I’ve had a ringside seat to the power of leadership self-awareness for nearly 15 years,” she wrote in Harvard Business Review. “Yet, when I first began to delve into the research of self-awareness, I was surprised by the striking gap between the science and the practice of self awareness.” 

In response, she and a team of researchers led 10 separate investigations with nearly 5,000 participants to better understand what self-awareness really is, why leaders need it, and how we can increase it. Eurich shared the three most important findings in HBR:

First, there are two types of self-awareness: internal and external. The former is related to the way we see our own values, passions, aspirations, and impact on other people, while the latter is related to understanding how other people view us and our values, passions, etc. One might assume that if you have a high degree of internal self-awareness, you’d naturally be high on the external side, too, but Eurich’s research showed no evidence of a relationship between the two types. This makes it all the more important for leaders to actively cultivate both. Eurich suggests actively seeking feedback from others to ensure you find a “delicate balance” between the two distinct viewpoints.

Second, the research revealed that leaders who hold more power have lower degrees of external self-awareness. To put some numbers on it, one study of more than 3,600 leaders across a variety of roles and industries found that when compared to lower-level leaders, higher-level leaders more significantly overvalued their skills, and this pattern prevailed for other crucial competencies like emotional self-awareness, accurate self-assessment, empathy, trustworthiness, and leadership performance. When thinking about why, researchers have two explanations. First, higher-level leaders don’t have as many people available to give feedback. Second, citing the work of business professor James O’Toole, Eurich wrote that “as one’s power grows, one’s willingness to listen shrinks.” While understandable, this behavior leaves room for concern. To make up for this, Eurich says that successful leaders seek frequent critical feedback from bosses, peers, employees, their board, etc.

Lastly, the study exposed that being introspective doesn’t necessarily mean you are more self-aware. In fact, the research showed that people who introspect are less self-aware and are unhappier at work and in their personal lives, not because they reflect about themselves, but because they’re simply doing it wrong. It comes down to one simple word: why. People who are introspective often ask themselves “why?” when trying to understand their emotions, behaviors, or circumstances. This questioning, according to Eurich’s research, is an ineffective self-awareness question because it invites negative thinking. Her team hypothesizes that instead of asking “why?” we should be asking “what?” because the latter helps us stay “objective, future-focused, and empowered to act on new insights.” For example, instead of asking yourself, “why did I experience failure there?,” you can say, “what do I need to do to ensure I succeed the next time?”

In summary, the research suggests that leaders who focus on building both internal and external self-awareness, consistently seek feedback from others, and ask what instead of why will see themselves more clearly and be more effective individuals.

Read more about the findings here

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