One of my earliest leadership roles was managing a group of about 15 licensing contractors at a local insurance firm. During one of my first rounds of receiving feedback, I first heard the perception that I played favorites with my team members. The feedback was entirely unexpected and required some intense self-awareness.
I remember wrestling with the cognitive dissonance of it all – I played favorites? I was getting my Master’s in leadership development, reading books and literature on the subject, and making every conscious effort to show up in the way I felt I needed to. My brain couldn’t make sense of the feedback I was receiving and did everything it could to protect me (which looked a lot like disregarding this feedback).
I mentioned it to a professor of mine at the time and was lucky enough to be surrounded by mentors who were willing to push me a little bit and ask me about how the feedback I received might be accurate.
After sitting with that hard reflection, I finally was able to work through the discomfort it brought me and saw the way my team members perceived my intention. It took work and courage to be honest with myself that those I felt more comfortable with led to a better relationship and natural ease in my ability to go to them regularly (leading to the perception of ‘favorites’).
I deepened my understanding of ingroups and outgroups and committed to regularly reflecting on how I communicated with everyone on my team, including the folks I may have struggled to form a bond with. I realized that the people with whom I had a less intense relationship resulted from transactional conversations, whereas my stronger relationships were much more likely to be transformational.
As I gained more experience in my leadership role, I never forgot what that first ‘A-ha’ felt like and paid attention to the many future a-has that came my way. Each time the feedback was easier to hear, and the more I reflected and paid attention to my actions, I found I could ‘catch’ the behavior or thought or judgment before it affected the impact I wanted to make.
And that’s the thing with self-awareness, right? It’s not enough to accept that you may have these behaviors – you also need to have the courage to identify the behaviors and be willing to seek out the things you are doing or not doing that may not align with your values and commit to building new behavioral muscles.
You Aren’t as Self-Aware as You Think You Are
Over the last 15 years of studying leadership, one pattern I consistently see is the idea that leaders who struggle have this assumption that they understand themselves and the world around them more than they may do. And it’s usually not a malicious assertion, more like a misplaced understanding of their role in the struggles they may be experiencing.
Dr. Tasha Eurich, a renowned organizational psychologist, talks about how understanding how others view you, or the impact you’d made on them, isn’t the same as self-awareness. Accurate self-awareness happens when you understand why you show up the way you do. And that is an entire journey of exploration, not a destination.
It’s not enough to know that you have a short temper, for example. You need to do the work to uncover why you have a short temper in certain situations. Explore the triggers, the environment, the relationships. Look at your values and get curious about what is being pressed when those big emotions start to bubble to the surface.
I like to think of self-awareness as an action verb – it’s something you do, not something you have. It’s an identity practice and something you will need to work at for the rest of your life.
Celebrate the Catch (and Keep Going)
As you develop a regular practice of self-awareness and reflection, you may start to catch yourself after a behavior has happened. Or during the behavior. Or, after much training, you may begin to notice the sensations before they bubble up.
And when you catch yourself, no matter when I want you to celebrate it. Celebrate that you noticed it with a pat on the back and a ‘How interesting!’
And after you’ve celebrated, I want you to face the emotion and press a little deeper. Don’t shame yourself, don’t get frustrated with yourself. Instead, lean into what triggered you. You may start to feel new emotions like shame or loss, or anxiety.
Keep leaning into the feeling.
Consider what has been going on that would have caused this emotion to come to the surface. Is it biological (when did you eat last? Are you stressed? Tired?)? Is it something else (a value being bumped up against? Fear of loss?)?
Note what comes up for you and sit with it for a little while. Let your body and mind remember the feeling, so next time you can catch it that much sooner.
Sarah Noll Wilson is on a mission to help leaders build and rebuild teams. She aims to empower leaders to understand and honor the beautiful complexity of the humans they serve. Through her work as an Executive Coach, an in-demand Keynote Speaker, Researcher, Contributor to Harvard Business Review, and Bestselling Author of “Don’t Feed the Elephants”, Sarah helps leaders close the gap between what they intend to do and the actual impact they make. She hosts the podcast “Conversations on Conversations”, is certified in Co-Active Coaching and Conversational Intelligence, and is a frequent guest lecturer at universities. In addition to her work with organizations, Sarah is a passionate advocate for mental health.