The benefits of self-awareness in leadership development

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Written by Kate Pritchard

Self-awareness is a key driver of successful leadership, benefiting both the individual and the wider organisation. Research from the Stanford Graduate School of Business identified it as the most important skill for leaders to develop, while a study by the Korn Ferry Institute found that “leaders who are self-aware are more likely to be high-performing, to meet their business goals, and save on turnover costs.”

What is self-awareness and how can leaders develop it?

Self-awareness is the ability to examine and understand your own emotions and reactions. Mastering self-awareness gives you better situational awareness, and enables you to know your strengths and weaknesses, what motivates you and ensures you evaluate your actions objectively. Self-aware leaders develop skills to ensure they are active listeners, have a drive for continual improvement, greater empathy and high levels of emotional intelligence.

Feedback is central to unlocking the benefits of self-awareness and becoming a good leader. However, honest and open feedback is not often given, and the higher leaders get in an organisation the more likely it is to be in short supply. Studies show that as executives become more senior, they become more confident – but are less likely to consider the perspectives of others. Essentially, they over-value their skills and are blind to areas for improvement.

Requesting 360 degree feedback about your performance overcomes these issues. Collecting feedback from a variety of different viewpoints instead of just one (e.g., colleagues, manager/supervisor, direct reports, customers etc) provides richer and more balanced insights.

Accepting this feedback, however unexpected or even critical, helps build higher levels of self-awareness, identifies strengths, and areas for development and actions, improving performance and ensuring you become a better leader. Backing this up, research finds that 83% of people with high self-awareness are top performers.

The importance of self-awareness to transformational leadership

Experts identify two main types of leadership:

– Transactional, where leaders use rewards and their position of power to achieve results

– Transformational, where leaders work with their teams, inspiring them to grow, develop new skills and perform at their best

Self-awareness is a key trait of transformational leadership, making it a critical skill to build. Gartner lists developing current and future leadership as one of its top 5 priorities for HR in 2022, and highlights a need to equip midlevel managers to lead with empathy.

Areas to focus on for developing self-awareness

As with every other form of feedback it is essential to ask the right questions – focusing on these topic areas ensures that the right behaviours are being evaluated in order to develop transformational leadership skills:

Interpreting your 360 degree feedback results

It is very typical for the results of a 360 degree feedback exercise to contain some surprises. Sometimes it’s a pleasant one, but equally it could be an unpleasant surprise which you disagree with.

Try not to see this as negative feedback. It’s common to react emotionally to such results but try to be as objective and self-aware as possible. Almost all people, will find there are differences between their own perception of their leadership capabilities and those of others. Try to avoid the pitfall of “explaining away” results you are uncomfortable with. Be open and really take the time to consider feedback.

View your results in a positive way. They present you with a fantastic opportunity to make better use of your time, identifying what you should do more or less of, or what you should do differently. In fact, many successful leaders with high self-awareness go out of their way to collect feedback from what Harvard Business Review calls “loving critics” – people who have their best interests in mind and are willing to tell them the truth.

Your 360 degree feedback enables you to evaluate your skills and performance and group them into one of four areas:

STRENGTHS

A strength is a competency that both you and your raters feel you demonstrate. Focusing on improving strengths can deliver major benefits, as when we have a belief in our own ability in a specific area, we are likely to dedicate more effort and persistence in improving.

DEVELOPMENT AREAS

A development area is a competency that both you and your raters do not feel you demonstrate adequately. These are not necessarily ‘weaknesses’ – they can just be things that you have not yet built strengths in.

HIDDEN STRENGTHS

A hidden strength is a competency that your raters feel you demonstrate, but you do not. They are skills or behaviours you have, but underestimate. Being aware of your hidden strengths can prevent you from under utilising key leadership capabilities or wasting time trying to “fix” something that isn’t broken.

BLIND SPOTS

A blind spot is the reverse of a hidden strength. These are competencies that you feel you demonstrate, but your raters do not. Developing self-awareness here will help you to better discover your blind spots and take action to improve in these areas.

Improve self-awareness to become an effective leader

While self-awareness has become an increasingly important part of leadership, the changing world of work now makes it critical to individual and company success. Understanding yourself and being open and empathetic is crucial to getting the best out of your hybrid teams. Collecting 360 degree feedback provides the best way to get deeper and richer insights into your skills, helping build self-awareness and then delivering all the benefits it brings.

In our next blog on leadership we’ll explain how you can turn your 360 feedback into tangible goals and actions to become a better leader.