Self-Awareness in the Age of Individualism

Academics and businesspeople agree that self-awareness is a key aspect of improving performance. Studies show that without it, people tend to be closed-off to feedback, difficult to coach, overestimate capabilities, and ultimately struggle to build and maintain high performing teams. Conversely, awareness of one’s own behavioral tendencies facilitates leadership effectiveness.Self-Awareness

As it’s generally understood that self-awareness is essential for improvement, it might follow that investment in leadership development would result in increased effectiveness. But there is actually a strong negative correlation between spending on development and confidence in leadership, which highlights an unfortunate conclusion: The majority of managers and executives aren’t receiving interventions that move the needle. In fact, at least half of all leaders get in the way of team productivity and don’t live up to their full potential. And, perhaps even more concerning, executive turnover costs organizations somewhere between 50-200% of a leader’s annual salary—thus making it vastly consequential to the bottom line.

Why aren’t interventions changing the behavior of bad leaders and improving financial results? I think it’s because many researchers and practitioners use an individualistic (and inaccurate) definition of self-awareness that emphasizes self-knowledge and strengths over ways to improve one’s reputation with others. From my perspective, the goal of self-knowledge and celebrating yourself is inward looking, antisocial, and selfish—when leadership is a team sport and function for the group, as opposed to a source of personal privilege and individual power.

As an alternative, I propose a more prosocial definition that is congruent with human nature and, by extension, more likely to impact employee engagement and the bottom line. Further, I go on to provide evidence that there are individual differences in self-awareness. That is, some personality characteristics facilitate self-awareness while others, such as being too competitive or overly confident, get in the way of an accurate understanding of what’s going on around us.

The Individualistic Version of Self-Awareness 

Philosophers and psychologists have a long history of being concerned with self-knowledge. As Aristotle put it, “knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” But the first question is, “What do we mean by self-awareness?”

Historically, psychologists have used an individualistic approach. Individualism suggests that civilization is an alien intrusion and de-emphasizes social bonds, commitments to the majority, and self-control. The positive psychology movement, for example, is rooted in individualistic presuppositions; the major premise is that effective leadership starts with finding the Authentic Self – the real you that is objectively true.

From this paradigm, leadership development is about introspection and self-regulated positive behaviors that foster self-development, well-being, and the ability to cope with daily life. The more you self-control for the benefit of the group, the more you become neurotic and guilt-ridden. Thus, you should just be yourself, focus on what you do best, and act in ways that align with your personal agenda.

Yet, empirical research finds that a strengths-based approach intensifies natural dispositions and influences leaders to neglect opposing but complementary actions. For example, leaders with an inclination to push people toward task performance overdo forceful behaviors and disregard building relationships and creating an environment that cultivates morale and engagement.

In effect, improving your leadership productivity doesn’t actually look like being more of yourself; it looks like the parent who balances imposing structure with acceptance and sensitivity, or the businessperson who dexterously shifts from radical innovation to practical implementation.

Three Motives that Re-Frame Self-Awareness

The alternative to individualism is an evolutionary perspective, namely, socioanalytic theory. Socioanalytic theory integrates findings from biology, sociology, evolutionary psychology, and cultural anthropology to assert three overarching motives which each have a role to play in self-awareness:

  1. We all want to get along and achieve harmonious relationships and social attention. For the last 250,000 years as modern humans, 5 million years as chimpanzees, and 7 million years as gorillas, we have lived together in families and troops, respectively. From building pyramids to winning wars, everything consequential in human affairs happens between people – not within people.  We are social creatures motivated to create and maintain relationships with others.
  2. We all want to get ahead by obtaining power, status, and resources. People have always organized in hierarchies of inequality. Hierarchies facilitate passing on information to future generations and assist with coordination. It’s much easier to learn how to behave from other people than figuring it out for yourself, and the same goes for which berry to eat, language, reading, and solving math problems.
  3. We all want to render life interpretable. People need to feel as though life has meaning, purpose, and predictability – hence the reason for philosophy, religion, scientific exploration, and rules for social interaction, games, and language. People are first and foremost rule-formulating and rule-following animals that impose a culture and its rules on other people (i.e., socialization). Rules help people forecast and understand what will happen next in a chaotic and meaningless world.

Of course, a person may place more or less value on each motive than another person, but nevertheless all three motives are present in everyone.

Rethinking Self-Awareness

A key point in understanding self-awareness and leadership is that these motives are in a state of tension: The more you self-sacrifice, the more people like you; and the more you win, the less people like you. Therefore, one of the fundamental challenges in everyday life (and leadership) is being liked while being promoted or being sensitive while telling people what to do.  People who get it right enjoy more relationships and power than those who get it wrong, and these are the same people who are good at leadership. This point is widely established in the research literature and known as the too-much-of-a-good-thing effect (TMGT) and strengths overused. Balancing the tension and getting it right requires self-awareness.

The situation you’re in is an important variable in determining which behavioral strategies meet your underlying motives and promote good leadership. But because we’re social primates, the situation isn’t mysterious environmental variables guiding our behavior – it’s other people. We spend the majority of every day in social interactions for the purpose of negotiating acceptance and status (the first two motives) and each of these interactions comes with an agenda and roles (agendas and roles are projections of the human need for structure and order, the third motive).

For instance, when you step into a team meeting everyone has a part to play, perhaps one person is giving a presentation and the others are pretending to listen. Each role comes with serious expectations regarding appropriate behavior and people become genuinely upset, emotional, and confused when someone breaks the rules. What if the presenter randomly stops talking or has an emotional outburst? What if an audience member turns around and faces the other direction?

Understanding Self-Awareness

Here’s what happens: After an interaction, people evaluate social performances and assign adjectives based on how well individuals played their parts. Good role performances are assigned positive adjectives; bad role performances, such as a presenter who stops talking or Sean Spicer in a press conference, are assigned negative adjectives and made fun of on Saturday Night Live.

Life is essentially one social interaction after the next to which people evaluate and describe each other. The aggregate of these descriptions is called reputation. For better or worse, it’s an individual’s reputation (not self-concept) that determines how they are treated and whether or not they fit in at work, influence a team, or get promoted to the C-suite.

To be very clear, I am saying that just sitting in your office and thinking about yourself is not helpful in facilitating leadership effectiveness and obtaining shared goals. Extreme individualism feeds the natural human tendency to distort reality in a self-serving way and breeds a culture of internal competition that discounts between-group competition—remember Enron? Consequently, this closed-off focus on the self is quite literally the antithesis of good leadership and what’s best for company financials.

On the other hand, knowing something about your reputation is very useful. What other people think determines your fate and ability (or inability) to engage and rally the troops. Looking to the external world instead of inward helps leaders acquire strategic self-awareness and compensatory behaviors that are in line with role expectations, self-sacrifice, cooperation, and managerial performance. Accordingly, we define self-awareness as the degree to which self-evaluations of behavior match others’ evaluations.

Personality Predicts Self-Awareness

At Hogan, we recently assessed the values and personality of 1,255 managers and executives. These leaders and their supervisors, peers, and subordinates then completed a 360-degree assessment measuring competency behaviors and overall effectiveness. We operationalized self-awareness by subtracting other-ratings of performance from self-ratings and then computed analyses to determine which personality characteristics predict misinterpreting reality.

As socioanalytic theory hypothesizes, leaders who were egocentric, competitive, non-conforming, unemotional, arrogant, focused on the past, closed off to others, and overly serious were unaware of what other people think about them. These characteristics place individual survival above the group and reduce both self-awareness and team and organizational performance.

This is the central challenge in improving organizational effectiveness: Selfish dictators (getting ahead) are the ones who are promoted, but a group of cooperators (getting along) outperform a group of dictators. And what do all dictators have in common? They get noticed and rise to power but are bad at leadership. They are unaware of their lack of competence; and they spend most of their waking hours fantasizing about unique talents and trying to convince others they were sent from the heavens to save the world. But in the end they always lose: Dictatorships are outperformed by a functional culture that encourages cooperation and balances individualism with high standards of moral conduct.

On the contrary, leaders who were self-critical, insecure, curious, humble, and open-minded had a better grasp on others’ perceptions of their behavior and leadership style. This psychological profile is prosocial and orients the individual to the external world. The benefit is a sensible approach to leadership development: They get feedback from the environment, target specific weaknesses, and evaluate whether or not they’ve changed.

Using this approach, leaders are better equipped to navigate the balancing act of getting along and getting ahead, and thus keep friends while emerging as leaders via an aggressive political process. Further, when they do ascend the hierarchy, they resist the corrupting influences of power, see things from other people’s point of view, and set aside the ego to concentrate on firm performance.

Final Thoughts

Self-knowledge is about who you are in relation to other people and, therefore, self-awareness should be defined by how much you know about your reputation. Do others perceive you as overly conforming (i.e., too much getting along) or sucking the oxygen out of the room (i.e., too much getting ahead)? The most important part of navigating social life and being a good leader is keeping tabs on your reputation and modifying your behavior accordingly.

Lastly, well-constructed measures of personality predict individual differences in self-awareness and are useful in the workplace. It is empirically true that certain people are predisposed to taking in information from the external world and adjusting their behavior to fit the context. These folks steer clear of self-reflection, self-obsession, and the imaginary root causes of their social conduct. They resemble what most of us were taught as children but quickly forgot as adults: You should be humble, empathic, considerate, curious, willing to admit a mistake and try again, focused on how other people feel, and maybe even do the right thing and expect nothing in return.

This post originally appeared at Vantage, a partner of Hogan, is a Chicago-based professional services firm that helps companies around the world build exceptional leadership capability throughout their organizations.