This might seem a strange question. You might argue that no-one can possibly know you better than you do. However, bear with me, as there is plenty of evidence to suggest that we aren’t as familiar with our true selves as one might imagine.
Now this isn’t a journal of psychology and I’m not trying to provide therapy, so let’s keep it light – but this is a topic that we should all be interested in and one which has a huge bearing on leadership, relating as it does to the subject of ego, self-awareness, behaviour and the perceptions of others.
All the above are fundamental to being a leader, or at least to being an effective one. Of course, if you’re happy to do it badly you can ignore this and all my other articles and just do what you like. From my observations, there are plenty that do. This article is about self-awareness at an advanced level and takes a bit of thought and some deep reflection. But then, so does being an effective leader.
So, back to the question at hand. You could be forgiven for thinking that self-knowledge is readily available and straightforward – surely you just think about yourself objectively and job’s a good ‘un?
Well, perhaps it’s not that simple.
The challenge is, I suggest, in two main parts. First, the ability to be objective about something where you are inherently subjective and secondly, the challenge of interpretation and rationalisation. Let’s look at each in turn.
One challenge is that we may know ourselves intimately, (although even that implies a level of self-analysis and reflection which is uncertain) but even so, probably not as we appear to others. Everything we know of ourselves is filtered through our own perceptions, attitudes, values, beliefs and personality. All filters that are unlikely to be applied by others.
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It may also be shaped by what others tell us or indicate through their responses to us. Someone who has grown up bolstered by uncritical approval and praise from parents may have a very distorted and perhaps delusional self-image. The same could be true in reverse, leading to an overly critical and negative self-perception. Neither is objective. If you’ve ever told yourself that you didn’t mean to upset someone or to do something that has had a poor outcome and have therefore told yourself that you didn’t do anything ‘wrong’, then that’s what we’re talking about here. Someone else is unlikely to give you the same ‘benefit of the doubt’ you’ll readily afford to yourself. As Stephen Covey once said: “We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their actions”. The ability to perceive and therefore judge our actions by the same standards that others will employ is something requiring focus, analysis and reflection.
Which brings us neatly to the second point: Interpretation. When we do or say anything, it doesn’t exist in isolation. We have a whole database of situations, past-history and self-perceptions that enable us to perceive our thoughts, words and actions through a series of filters and masks, informed by our personality and a web of values and beliefs. This gives us a framework in which to place and evaluate any thought or action.
An example: I’ve heard, many times, a colleague of mine proudly introduce themselves as a ‘control freak’. They clearly perceive it as a virtue and a positive approach. Possibly that relates to their attitude to risk and their history, to their personality and their view of creative people (whom they call ‘mavericks’) and of change, which makes them insecure. If you consider how that might affect those around them, you’ll perhaps see what I mean about the way we rationalise our own approach to make it seem and feel ‘correct’, even when it has negative consequences for others and perhaps for the organisation. Such a ‘control freak’ might suppress ideas, discourage input and reduce efficiency by creating excessive or non-value adding controls and systems to prevent risk or variance. It might lead to disengagement and a loss of morale and to staff turnover among those most likely to generate ideas, improvement and progress. Despite this, they will continue to see it as a positive and to rationalise away any opposition or disagreement. Change becomes ‘risk’, creative people become ‘loose cannons’, adherence to outdated process becomes ‘compliance’, ‘protection’ or ‘control’ and the people who leave may be seen as ‘not a good fit’ for the team or organisation.
An alternative example and view: I am naturally extroverted and like to engage with (i.e. chat with) people. I tell myself that I’m influencing and trying to establish rapport and that I’m helping to create a good atmosphere. But to my introverted colleague who wants to get on with an important task, I will probably be an annoying interruption or even a source of trauma and stress.
The question remains, but can be modified: How well do you know yourself from the point of view of others?
This is worth some serious consideration and perhaps seeking some feedback. One of our most important skills is the ability to adapt our behaviour to get the most positive outcomes, for the ‘greater good’. Give it some thought.
If you would like to find out more about how knowing yourself can benefit your team, consider one of our CMI leadership and management courses.