As humans, I think we have a natural desire to want to know ourselves and understand who we are. That’s a great thing—especially in a global work environment—because understanding ourselves in the context of our own cultures can help us better understand others, too. But it’s too often the case that people and leaders who are self-aware use a “take it or leave it” approach instead of using their self-knowledge to bridge gaps and create thriving relationships.
On the contrary, here are a few instances that illuminate the importance of self-awareness.
Sometimes You Must Become the Elder to Connect to those Younger
We can (and should) actively work on developing self-awareness, but it’s been my experience that moments of true self-awareness often seem to pop up at the most unexpected times:
My niece was about three, running through the mall with me in hot pursuit. When I caught up to her, I dropped to a squat so that we’d be at eye level. “How many times do I have to tell you…” I began. Had I been in a cartoon, it was at that point in the sentence that a light bulb would have appeared above my head. I stopped speaking and just looked at her. I was no longer me; I was my mother, starting yet another sentence with that phrase. I was horrified at the realization I had become my mother, but I also remembered how I used to feel when she asked what I thought at the time was a pretty stupid question.
For some reason, that incident remains one of the strongest memories I have of coming face to face with myself in an unexpected way. I became aware of how I saw things, and the ways in which I reacted, in a way that I hadn’t been before that trip to the mall.
Of course, as is true of all knowledge, having the knowledge and self-awareness is one thing; doing something with it is another. I used that moment to change how I interacted with my nieces. Instead of simply repeating what my parents had done, I started thinking about how I felt as a child, how I wanted my nieces to feel, and how there might be better ways to make my point. Sure, I still did things imperfectly, but at least they were my imperfections.
How One Self-Aware CEO Created an Open, Innovative Corporate Culture
The memory of my niece and I came flooding back a few years ago while reading a New York Times interview with Autumn Manning, co-founder and former CEO of YouEarnedIt.com, a software company. In discussing leadership lessons, Ms. Manning said, “To be an effective leader, you have to have self-awareness. I’ve always known that.” She then proved that she knew what she was talking about by offering a concrete example:
“I have a lot of intensity and a lot of passion and that can be my greatest strength, but it can also be a big weakness of mine. If applied the wrong way, it breeds the wrong behavior, like people not speaking up because I am so passionate and so intense about what I believe. So I have to go out of my way to communicate my intentions.”
I admire the way that Ms. Manning uses the knowledge of herself to modulate her own behavior. In my experience, that sort of effort is rare. I’ll go out on a limb and say that most leaders aren’t particularly self-aware to begin with. If they are, too often they squander a leadership opportunity by directing the information outward, rather than inward. We’ve all been on the receiving end of how that works: “That’s just who I am. Deal with it.”
Well, sure, in some ways it would be easier to just go through life being ourselves and expecting everyone else to accommodate. It would also, ultimately, be self-defeating. Ms. Manning understands that. She may no longer be the CEO of her company, but her ability to recognize—and set aside—both her personality and position of power helped her create a corporate culture that thrives on the free expression of ideas.
Global Leaders Need Cultural Self-Awareness to Foster a Thriving Workplace
Adjusting our behavior becomes even more important, of course, when we are working not just across personalities but across cultures. That means we must also become self-aware of the cultural norms that shape our perspectives and behaviors.
Suppose, for example, that we live in a culture in which building relationships is more important than being punctual. Within that culture, we might be late for an appointment because we ran into a long-time associate and no one would question the decision because it’s the norm.
Outside the culture is a different story. If we’re doing business in a country in which being late is considered rude, we’re more likely to be successful if we’re aware of our cultural tendencies. In other words, we might have to put off that conversation with a colleague in order to make it to a meeting on time. If we don’t alter our behavior based on cultural norms, the meeting’s success rests entirely on the other person (or people) making the effort to accommodate us. Why impose that burden or take that risk?
Whatever our business or life goals may be, we’re more likely to achieve them when we meet people halfway. That’s hard to do without cultural self-awareness, which is one reason it’s surprising (and disappointing) that true self-awareness can be so rare among leaders. Ms. Manning has clearly taken a hard look in the mirror. Have you?