Consider someone at work who is convinced that they are highly skilled at their job, who constantly tells their colleagues how to do better, who achieves little but irritate and at times anger others because the truth is they are not good at their job, they are just deluded. Their almost complete lack of self-awareness means they push back against any and all attempts colleagues make to help them get real and improve. This pretending, this distorted self-perception, renders them incapable of learning and growing into the person they believe they are and perhaps could be.
The same applies in our personal lives. How often have you encountered a person who believes they are caring, supportive and wise, yet bosses everyone around refusing ever to compromise to accommodate the needs of others, making their lives limited and miserable. They simply cannot see that their real intention is not to provide wise leadership, but to be in control.
The Challenge of Self-Awareness
Being self-aware is arguably the greatest challenge a human being can face and achieve. Self-awareness underpins our ability to live a loving, fulfilled life.
Becoming self-aware often involves emotional pain. It means we must face up to our shortcomings, those aspects of self that are holding us back in life and do something different. It can involve protracted periods of difficulty that can only be surmounted by courageously facing our fears and having faith in our ability to change ourselves and hence our situation.
This is what maturity is all about: understanding that our experience mirrors us back to ourselves and is a more reliable indicator of where we are than our mind which is heavily influenced by our (often unconscious) beliefs.
Impact of Self-awareness on Organisational Cultures
Self-awareness or lack of it plays a huge role in the quality of organisational cultures. Imagine a CEO who emails off inspiring words to his staff most mornings intending to uplift them. Unfortunately, he also has a habit of firing people at the drop of a hat when sales targets are not met. This causes people to be fearful and self-protective. Then there is the manager who waits for a team member to fail and rather than guiding them to better performance, deviously performance manages them until they give up and leave of their own accord. Perhaps the team member was not up to the job, but how can you find out if they are given no chance to do better. The CEO and manager are not aware of what they are being and doing; they have no idea that their actions are at the heart of the dysfunctional organisational culture.
The Critical Importance of Feedback
You cannot become self-aware on your own. It’s not something you can think about. Remember the address David Foster Wallace gave in 2005 at Kenyon College which began with a parable about fish:
“There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning boys. How’s the water?” The two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”
Mature, self-aware people get that way by asking for and receiving timely feedback from the people in their life. They engage regularly in self-examination and banter in general. When a situation isn’t working for us, constructive, well-intentioned feedback allows us to consider our behaviour, our performance and the impact we are having on others, from other perspectives. It can be a catalyst for us to open our eyes and get more real. We can then choose what to be and do differently, should we decide the feedback is true and useful. In the best of worlds, feedback is a marvelous gift one person can give to another.
Giving feedback will only be helpful when it is intended to give value for the recipient, not release for the giver. Positive, helpful intention is fundamental. Giving effective feedback is not easy. It requires clarity and courage, skill, honesty, understanding, self-respect, and respect for others. The point of giving feedback is to help a person be more aware of what they are doing and how they are doing it. Focus on behaviour which can be changed, providing a balance of positive affirmation and constructive comments re any suggested improvements.
How to Give Effective, Helpful Feedback
You give feedback on the behaviour, not the person. Communicate a clear observation, not something inferred, describing what you have seen and heard the other person do, without making judgements about that. Share ideas and give information, not advice, exploring alternatives without inflicting your own answers. To do this successfully you need to think about how much feedback to give, when and where to give feedback and consider the receiver’s preferred form of feedback: do they, for example, prefer face to face in private? Will this be an informal chat or a more formal discussion?
Always take the time to reflect honestly and compassionately on the following questions before you give feedback:
To receive feedback well listen, don’t tell or argue. Allow yourself to be vulnerable. Ask questions to clarify what you have heard rather than defensively justifying your actions. Be open and reflect on what the person is saying, don’t just dismiss it. Accept the feedback and make your own decision about whether to act on it, or not.
Here is an acronym that will help you to give useful, effective feedback. It needs to be:
Specific – generalisations are not helpful. Deal with a specific behaviour.
Personal – it must be relevant to the person with the intention of being helpful.
Immediate – feedback is most effective when timely, given as close as possible to the actions that have prompted it.
Constructive – negative comments, incongruent body language and punishment are not effective feedback. Be positive and affirming.
Empathetic – put yourself in the other’s shoes and feel how they might respond to your feedback. Reflect on their level of awareness and willingness to learn and grow as well as their capabilities. What approach do they need from you? Do they need direction, guidance, confronting (not attacking) or mentoring?
Constructive, helpful feedback heads off problems before they develop, keeps colleagues productive and motivated, generally improves communication in relationships (both personal and professional) and creates an organisational culture of continuous learning through expanded self-awareness.
We all have our blind spots. In a way the more you know intellectually the harder it can be to see things, and yourself, as you really are. Most of us want to be our best self and care for others. Arguably our biggest challenge from cradle to grave is expanding our self-awareness so we can actually live our good intentions.
I have found, in my clients and in myself, that it is awareness courageously embraced, not strength of will or lucky breaks, that transforms your life.
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