Enter the term “self-awareness” into Google, and you’ll get somewhere around 340 million (yes, that’s million!) results. Look for it in the standard business school curriculum, however, and you may have to do some digging. Columbia Business School offers some material on self-awareness development as part of its Leadership Lab, which is a series of extracurricular activities that span the entire MBA experience, and also includes assessments and one-on-one coaching. Chicago Booth School of Business offers LEAD (leadership effectiveness and development), a program that, according to the university, is designed to enhance participants’ self-awareness and interpersonal effectiveness. And the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business offers a three-hour elective leadership development program “with an emphasis on self-understanding and learning,” according to the school website. Most often, we found that the concept of self-awareness is buried somewhere in the copy of various MBA program descriptions as opposed to being presented as a stand-alone module that’s worthy of study or even mastery.
However, this scarcity of self-awareness in the business school curriculum doesn’t mean the topic is not getting any attention from the academic community. Harvard Business School professor Bill George, for instance, defines self-awareness as “the skill of being aware of our thoughts, emotions, and values from moment to moment.” Organizational psychologist Tasha Eurich breaks the concept down a bit further, distinguishing between internal and external self-awareness, that is, between an awareness of our own state of being and that of how others view us. Beyond this is what Robert Hogan, a psychologist and cofounder of Hogan Assessments, calls strategic self-awareness, which is the kind of self-awareness you need to compete successfully in your business. Combining and tending to these different forms of self-awareness creates a dynamic self-awareness that is both useful on its own merits and, again, key to developing your executive presence.
So why does self-awareness matter? Because a lack of it can lead us to misjudge our own behavior, or at least the effect it has on others’ evaluations of us. For example, I worked with one client on a work placement: Carlos, a high-potential leader at a U.S.-based global consumer goods company, whose collaborative style and interpersonal sensitivity were prized by his colleagues. However, his reluctance to speak up in meetings, especially with more senior leaders present, made him appear disengaged.
He also seemed unwilling or unable to “clearly articulate a point of view and then defend it,” according to his boss. Carlos was surprised by this assessment. The way he tells it, he just didn’t want to add to what he considered “the noise” in these meetings, where, according to him, “people talk a lot but don’t really say anything.” In fact, as a native Spanish speaker with limited conversational fluency in English, Carlos had some difficulty participating in the lively verbal back-and-forth that is common to many American and European business meetings, but he had convinced himself that his reticence was the appropriate response to others’ verbosity. And while you may have found yourself nodding at Carlos’s sentiment about people’s tendency to often talk much but say little, you may also agree that
Carlos’s lack of self-awareness of how his behavior was actually perceived by his colleagues prevented him from conveying the executive presence his bosses expect in a future senior leader.
Lack of self-awareness can also mean that we think we’re more skillful than we are. Professors Justin Kruger and David Dunning, authors of the famous study “Unskilled and Unaware of It,” point out that many people are unable to figure out where their knowledge ends: “Indeed, in many social and intellectual domains, people are unaware of their incompetence, innocent of their ignorance.” In other words, they don’t know what they don’t know. The “Dunning-Kruger effect” is a term often used to ridicule the happily clueless, but there is hope. Dunning himself has observed that there are ways to overcome the ignorance of one’s ignorance.