Hogan founder Robert Hogan, PhD, says that by “know thyself,” the ancient Greeks weren’t talking about simple introspection. Their concept of self-knowledge meant understanding the limits of one’s performance capabilities in any given interaction.1 Similarly, Hogan’s concept of self-knowledge—called strategic self-awareness—requires understanding how others perceive us in social interaction.
When leaders fail to recognize their strengths, limitations, and values, their performance cannot meet its full potential. Their productivity and teams may suffer. Yet awareness alone is not enough. Self-awareness becomes strategic when knowledge empowers action. This means leaders must understand how those characteristics affect their reputation in context and what behaviors they can change to become more effective. At Hogan, we know that strategic self-awareness is a key driver of successful leadership performance.
To explore the impact of strategic self-awareness in talent development and leadership development, we consulted Jackie Sahm, MS, vice president of integrated solutions at Hogan. “Strategic self-awareness means determining what a personality characteristic can do for you in the context of your endeavors, not just understanding the absolute value of that characteristic,” Sahm said.
In this article, we will define strategic self-awareness, demonstrate why strategic self-awareness matters to organizations, and describe strategic self-awareness in practice.
What Is Strategic Self-Awareness?
Strategic self-awareness is the degree to which you understand your strengths and limitations and how others see you in any competitive endeavor. This complex form of self-knowledge has three key components:
- Understanding strengths and opportunities for change and growth
- Understanding how strengths and challenges relate to those of others
- Understanding the need to adapt behavior to increase effectiveness
Strategic self-awareness is not focused on identity, which is how we view ourselves, but on reputation, which is how others perceive us. The distinction is important. In a competitive endeavor, the behaviors one may need to adapt depend on the viewpoints of others and the context.
For instance, a person with a flexible, unstructured approach to task focus tends to be tolerant of ambiguity but may also seem impulsive or disorganized. These personality characteristics might serve a user experience designer extremely well in the ideational early stages of a project. But when it is time to collaborate with front- and back-end developers, the UX designer will likely need to give greater attention to process and detail than they tend to do on an everyday basis.
Developing and applying strategic self-awareness is valuable for everyone but especially for leaders. Recognizing how one’s own behavior affects others lies at the core of effective leadership.
Why Does Strategic Self-Awareness Matter?
Hogan defines leadership as the ability to build and maintain a high-performing team. Strategic self-awareness is a critical competency for that.
But strategic self-awareness is challenging to achieve. Not only do our egos tend to deny that our reputations are imperfect, but we also often go to great lengths to conceal the truth about ourselves from ourselves. Most of us would prefer not to point out each other’s flaws either, making honest feedback difficult to obtain. This is especially true at higher levels of leadership, where a person’s rank may insulate them from hearing the truth. As well, human nature is so complex that self-awareness tends to evolve continually over time rather than occur in a single moment of mastery.
As if those obstacles weren’t tough enough, strategic self-awareness hinges on understanding how we seem to other people. Sahm describes it this way: “How is my behavior affecting others in good and bad ways? That’s at the heart of where the team comes in. Understanding what I am doing and how it affects others—making small but meaningful adjustments can transform the way that the whole team operates.”
The Detrimental Effects of Its Absence
The lack of strategic self-awareness in a leader can have a detrimental effect on teams. Sahm pointed out that a leader who is intense and energetic on an everyday basis might respond to bad news with emotional volatility or volume when under stress. To avoid the leader’s yelling, the team learns to cover up mistakes. This wastes time and damages the team’s ability to focus on work. It also means the leader makes decisions without complete information. The trickle-down effects can be severe.
Leaders who operate without strategic self-awareness can pose serious risks to the organization. Leaders who understand how they are inclined to behave under stress and learn to manage that behavior can improve productivity metrics. What’s also important is knowing when to emphasize strategic strengths or operational strengths, or when to act or rely on the skills of others. Leader versatility accounts for more than half of the variability in leader effectiveness yet is seen in fewer than 10% of leaders.2
To build an environment where leaders and teams thrive, organizations need to provide support for people to develop strategic self-awareness. Let’s look at some ways to help.
Putting It Into Practice
Before anyone can modify their behavior, they need to (1) understand their strengths and limitations, (2) understand how their strengths and challenges relate to those of others, and (3) understand what behaviors they might need to change to be more effective. Well-validated personality assessments offer a starting point.
Cultivating Strategic Self-Awareness
Personality has two major components: identity and reputation. Most of us are familiar with identity, which is the narrative we believe about ourselves. However, reputation is what determines most major career outcomes. This is why Hogan’s assessments focus on providing insights about reputation.
The Hogan personality assessments describe what we call the bright side, the dark side, and the inside of personality. The Hogan Personality Inventory (HPI) measures everyday strengths that help us succeed. The Hogan Development Survey (HDS) measures dark-side characteristics, also called derailers, which are strengths that may become overused during times of stress, pressure, or complacency. The Motives, Values, Preferences Inventory (MVPI) describes the inside—the unconscious values and biases that determine career motivations, preferred working environments, and decision-making styles.
“Hogan is unique in that it offers this deep, true, and candid assessment of the good, the bad, and the ugly,” Sahm said. High HDS scores can reveal potentially negative characteristics that might hold someone back from effective leadership. For example, a person who is typically confident and self-assured may become arrogant, hypercompetitive, or even combative under pressure.
“A lot of times, those good and bad things are indelibly linked,” Sahm continued. “Part of what makes you special is also part of what makes you hard to live with. One of the most difficult things about strategic self-awareness is holding those two truths at the same time.”
Sahm affirmed that this is not simple. Strategic self-awareness more closely resembles a lifelong endeavor than a box to check. And although it can take time, it is possible to not only gain strategic self-awareness, but also use it to change your behavior (perhaps even shifting your reputation).
Using Strategic Self-Awareness to Set Development Goals
Support is key—a Hogan-certified coach is an invaluable resource for cultivating strategic self-awareness and applying it in development goals. With an objective perspective, a coach can demystify assessment results by helping leaders connect their Hogan insights to their unique professional contexts.
Coaches can also provide tactics to help leaders understand where to focus their development goals and establish expectations for the development process. Effective development often hinges on minor, everyday behavioral adjustments, such as remembering names to build empathy. The benefits of these efforts are cumulative positive change, such as increased trust and strengthened relationships.
Anyone whose development goals are based on strategic self-awareness should use open communication about their efforts to change. Sahm called out two effective strategies to aid development: accountability and feedback.
Accountability relies on articulating one’s need for change and an intention to adapt behaviors. Sahm demonstrated the message that accountability can send: “I acknowledge I’m an imperfect person. I have flaws. I recognize this flaw is hurting you, and I want to fix it. [Saying] this is a tremendously powerful tool in any goal setting.”
Beyond accountability, development founded on strategic self-awareness requires feedback. The development plan should identify how and when to seek feedback. This might be an annual 360-degree assessment, monthly coaching, or frequent, informal conversations with peers and subordinates. Just as a competitive athlete studies her performance to refine it, someone who sets development goals needs perspective on how their efforts are progressing. “Seeking feedback on a goal that you’ve set to improve is the only way to know if you’re moving the needle,” Sahm said.
Strategic self-awareness—understanding your strengths and limitations and how others see you in any competitive endeavor—is valuable in the workplace and in life. “Know thyself” has been sound advice for millennia for good reason.
Jackie Sahm, MS, is the vice president of integrated solutions at Hogan Assessments, where she oversees the innovation, design, delivery, and execution of Hogan’s next generation of interactive, technology-enabled assessment and development products. She has more than 15 years of experience working in the field of personality assessment, talent management, and leadership development.
- Hogan, R., & Foster, J. (2016). Rethinking Personality. International Journal of Personality Psychology, 2(1): 37-43. https://ijpp.rug.nl/article/view/25245/22691
- Kaiser, R., Sherman, R., & Hogan, R. (2023, 7 March). It Takes Versatility to Lead in a Volatile World. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2023/03/it-takes-versatility-to-lead-in-a-volatile-world