More than 2,000 years ago, Greek philosophers, including Socrates and Plato, were among the first to say “know thyself” as an encouragement to be self-aware. Since then, innumerable philosophers, thinkers and teachers have used this maxim as a catalyst to inspire people to understand themselves before they try to understand others.
I began to understand the importance and benefits of self-awareness as a 22-year-old CPA working at the world’s largest accounting firm, Coopers & Lybrand. The managing partner of the office had us all take an assessment called The Predictive Index. Afterward, the managing partner sat with me and went through my results. They not only helped me understand why I thought and acted the way I did, but they also presented me with clear opportunities to use my strengths and internal wiring at the accounting firm and in my personal life.
If not for that experience, I likely would have gone through my days on cruise control, like most people do. In retrospect, I understand how much the experience has helped me over the years.
So what is self-awareness? The best way I have heard it described is the ability to understand how our thoughts, emotions and actions come across to, and affect, other people. The idea is closely connected to emotional intelligence. Self-awareness includes a good understanding of how you are affecting others.
You are rarely self-aware when a situation that is either good or bad captures you. You’ll know this is happening when the adrenaline and endorphins are flowing. It may feel good in the moment, but it often results in behavior that negatively affects you in the long term.
Being self-aware will help you stay in tune with the thoughts and emotions of those around you. Empathy is an important leadership trait, and there is a lot of evidence connecting it to effectiveness.
In addition, being self-aware will help you play to your strengths. A lack of self-awareness may feel good, but it sucks us into our weakest areas. Knowing more about ourselves helps us stay in areas where we are most effective.
Being self-aware also will help your decision-making and negotiating. When we are not self-aware, it is like putting on blinders; it limits our perspective and what we see.
Finally, and you can look this up: There is a lot of evidence that indicates people who are self-aware are happier. Who doesn’t want to be happier?
So what can you do to improve your self-awareness? First, have someone trustworthy in your life who will speak truth to you. We have someone on our team, Erica, who works closely with me on many projects. I can immediately tell from the look on Erica’s face when I am really going sideways on something, and with a little prompting, she will tell me what that something is. I don’t always agree with Erica, but I do trust her and respect her opinion. She and others on our team keep me on track, and I am thankful that they will speak truth to me.
Second, be a good listener. Recently, I heard someone say that he had never learned anything while talking. There is truth in that sentence. Plus, being a good listener is a fundamental component of empathy, which, as I mentioned, is a quality that makes for a better leader.
Third, be a learner. Being trapped in our own thinking is a dangerous spot. Broadening our thinking allows us to see so much more and makes us better in many ways, including being more self-aware.
You also can do what I did so many years ago: Try some personal assessments. I cannot overstate how much my early assessment helped me personally and the organizations I have since led. Over the years, I have also become certified in using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and DiSC Assessment. They, too, will help you. Anyone willing to take these assessments and invest time in understanding the results will improve their self-awareness, probably dramatically.
Finally — and I hope I don’t lose some of you here — try some yoga and meditation. Years ago, my wife and daughters would ask me to take a yoga class with them, and I would politely decline. Then my son-in-law went to a class and told me he liked it. So I decided to try yoga, and I loved it. Yoga has been beneficial to me. So has meditation, which I took up after reading Dan Harris’ book 10% Happier. Both activities can help you be more self-aware.
I have seen again and again how self-awareness, or lack thereof, affects leaders and their ability to be effective. Having self-awareness is not a silver bullet, but improving it will make you better.
Bill Yeargin is CEO of Correct Craft.