The value of self-awareness has been recognized for millennia. “Know thyself” was inscribed on the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Greek philosophers believed self-knowledge was the highest form of knowledge.
But the quest for self-knowledge is difficult. The Greek philosopher, Thales, claimed knowing thyself was the “most difficult thing to do.” The easiest thing was “to give others advice,” he said. Hard to disagree with that.
Many studies have documented the powerful benefits of self-awareness, which Dr. Tasha Eurich (Insight, 2017) defines as “the ability to see ourselves clearly—to understand who we are, how others see us and how we fit into the world” (p. 3). Self-reflection is one of the primary ways we examine ourselves and how others see us. It is deliberate, conscious introspection to better understand our thoughts, experiences and emotions, as well as how others see us.
Benefits of self-awareness include:
- enriched emotional intelligence and greater empathy and listening skills;
- improved critical-thinking skills and decision making;
- strengthened communications and relationships; and
- enhanced leadership capabilities and capacity.
Greater self-awareness also may render us better workers and team players, who are less likely to lie, cheat and steal (Eurich, 2018).
The benefits of self-awareness are important to organizational leaders at all levels who seek to boost and enrich employee communication, engagement, trust and productivity, and organizational culture.
There’s growing recognition that self-awareness may be a key driver of continuous improvement in leadership and help move performance from good to great. In fact, Eurich claims self-awareness is the “meta skill” of this century, the “single most important and yet least examined determinant of success or failure” (p. 3).
She identifies two types of self-awareness: the traditional internal self-awareness (how we see and understand ourselves) and external self-awareness (understanding how others see us).
Those who benefit most are individuals with both high internal and external self-awareness, per the four archetypes listed below (Harvard Business Review, Jan. 4, 2018):
Though many leaders believe they are highly self-aware, Eurich found only 10-15 percent are. In addition, leaders may over value their skills, and their greater experience may produce a false sense of confidence about their own performance and self-knowledge.
This may help explain why big perception gaps often exist between leaders’ self-evaluations of their performance vs. their employees’ perceptions of that performance. A recent example is The Plank Center’s Report Card on PR Leaders (2017 Report Card), where PR leaders graded themselves an “A-” for their performance, but their employees gave them a “C+.”
Prof. Kets de Vries, founder of INSEAD’S renowned Global Leadership Center, also exhorts greater self-awareness among leaders (INSEAD Interview). He contends that profound self-centeredness (deeply rooted narcissism) prevents individuals and organizations from achieving their full potential. Self-awareness in leaders is so crucial the Global Leadership Center focuses its development activities primarily on helping leaders improve by knowing themselves better and acting on that knowledge more effectively.
Overall, research by Eurich and others suggests self-awareness is a crucial driver of continuous improvement. Leaders who focus on 1) building both internal and external self-awareness, 2) regularly seek feedback from others, and 3) ask the right questions in self-reflection will see themselves more clearly and be more capable of putting those insights into action.
Despite the growing emphasis on self-awareness and reflection, little research in this area has been conducted with PR and communication leaders. To take a closer look, Dr. Elina Erzikova and I recently launched a study with PR leaders in the U.S. and Russia to examine five areas:
- To what extent do PR leaders use self-reflection to increase self-awareness?
- How do PR leaders conduct self-reflection—what approach(es) do they use?
- What are the key barriers to more, or more effective self-awareness?
- What are the practical benefits (and specific examples) of self-reflection for leaders in their roles in the workplace?
- Is there a relationship between self-reflection and mentoring?
We’re conducting interviews with 12-15 diverse and experienced communication leaders in each country. Our goal is to identify some best practices and approaches that lead to greater self-awareness and application of insights in practice. We’ll report our findings later this year.
Bruce K. Berger, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus, University of Alabama, and a Trustee of the Institute for Public Relations. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org