A meeting room filled with palpable tension, ended with my senior mentor letting me know that despite my excellent track record, I needed to work on self-awareness, and walking off. I had no idea what he was talking about. A few conversations later, I realised that many people perceived me very differently than I imagined – and one behavioural error was costing me my professional brand!
I learned an eye-opening but a lifelong lesson.
Self-awareness is not just about knowing yourself but also your standards
What are your strengths, weaknesses, what ticks you, what makes you weak in the knees, what makes your eyes lit up? These are not trivial questions. In this article, I present some techniques that might help.
Self-awareness is a well-researched area in psychology.
Most popular research on the topic is a theory is called “The Objective Self-Awareness Theory” (Duval & Wicklund, 1972). It posits that all of us have certain standards that we hold ourselves to. We are also constantly evaluating ourselves against those standards. As a result, we can either be satisfied or there may be a discrepancy between our assessment and the standards to which we hold ourselves. In case we fall short of our expectations, we either act or we ignore the discrepancy. Some factors that affect how we react to the discrepancy include how much effort we deem it is going to take. If it’s a quick fix, we are most likely to correct our behaviour to be more in line with our standards. We also tend to avoid a long drawn path.
Research talks little about how standards are set, however it is well known that they are and should be malleable. A lot of psychological problems originate because of people’s insistence on holding themselves to unrealistically high standards.
We need to constantly evaluate the standards to which we hold ourselves.
If you have just had a child, it is impossible to be 100% productive, or at least very difficult. It is okay to adjust expectations that you have about yourself at such a time. Another concept I find very useful is the compounding principle. Small changes add-up over time. Make a habit to reject any unrealistic expectations for an immediate reward. Tell yourself that as long as you have added value to yourself, it is okay to let the positive change / reward reveal itself over time. For instance, if you are beginning to read up, start by reading a short article on the area of interest. Then graduate to a paper, or a small book. The chances of you building that reading habit are much greater if you start small and carefully control your own expectations.
Identify your values as clearly as possible
Knowing the right way of doing something in absence of facts is based on beliefs & values. Do you know what your core values are? What do you stand for? Do you stand for loyalty, commitment, and reliability? It is important to take time and list down the values that you stand for, there may be many. A good test I have always found is to ask yourself in the absence of these values can I survive or sustain in a work or life environment? If the answer is no, that is a core value for you.
When we know our values very clearly, we are most likely to make the right tradeoffs. Better, we don’t let random setbacks bother us as long as our value system is not perturbed. For instance, if time commitment to your children is a core value for you, you will not mind declining that additional meeting at 8pm, worse if any criticism arose because of it, you will be able to better manage it.
A close circle of well-wishers can massively improve self-awareness
Loved ones, people who care about you, can play the biggest role in improving your self-awareness.
Relationships are unique. You might admire your partner, or your friend, you spend a lot of time with each other. However, did you observe that when you spend time apart you learn a lot more about each other? Spending time apart can help us become more self-aware of our relationships.
It is okay to express disappointment or anger. As long as you are being aware of it. In fact, I have observed that being true to your emotions and feelings encourages most honest conversations which is why many arguments with close friends and your loved ones are followed by strong feelings of affection. This is the best dose of self-awareness you can get in the shortest amount of time 😄. At work, being true to emotions and feelings in a self-aware way can bring out authentic leadership. This applies to both positive and sometimes negative emotions.
Follow writing or another form of self-compassion
When I am writing, I am in the flow. I really feel great when I am writing. Also, when I am in the flow, I am able to better observe myself. My thoughts don’t wander. I am able to be self-critical, and evaluate what is going on in that moment. As a result, I am able to think about aspects of my memories, experiences, and learnings. Over time, I believe I know myself a lot better than I did before I took up writing.
This could be a different activity for you. Perhaps Yoga or meditation? How about a workout? A quiet walk by yourself on a breezy evening. Everything works!
What sort of unconscious brand do you carry?
One of the wisest people I know at work once said, it is not about how you try to present yourself. It is about the unconscious brand you carry. For instance, he said, are you late by a few minutes to every meeting? A few instances later you are the person that is late to every meeting. Are you tardy with e-mail? you have a lot of instances of people chasing you? Congratulations, you have just become the “doesn’t ever respond to email” guy! This is really important.
Your behaviour needs to match the mental image you want people to carry of you.
Know your triggers
While delivering a presentation, a left-field question can trigger an emotional reaction or stump you. This has happened with me a few times. Sometimes there is an annoying character that will come at you out of nowhere. If you know that this is a trigger, you will have a practiced response – which can be either to politely provide rebuttal or sidestep altogether! Nonetheless it is better than an emotional response. Also, I do not need to talk about not “reacting” to emails. You can be forgiven for doing it once, but if you know you are prone to it, have better self-control.
You also meet lots of people, bosses, clients, and peers that have no idea how they are coming across. Some people are very cryptic, while others are nagging, some are nosey while others are aggressive. Sometimes people are simply unaware and may be willing to change, in this case you simply have to point out. You need to be sure though. Especially while dealing with really senior people, whether you are the right sort of person they will accept the feedback from. You also need to be trusted. At times the most critical lesson I have learnt is to just let some unaware people be. If unaware individuals are part of your team, also know that it is your responsibility to make them a better professional by talking to them about self-awareness. Use discretion though as every person is different, and they have different tolerances.
You think you have figured someone else out? think again.
Now that we have read about self-awareness, let me share with you a final thought. People are complicated. We usually have no idea what is going on in their lives. Some have kids with special needs, others are caring for ailing parents, some are in depression and others are fighting deep seated issues.
One that brings you face-to-face with new dimensions of reality about yourself. Equipped with that you can finally be ready to conquer the toughest competitor you would ever meet. Yourself! [/stu]