Self-Awareness: Why You Don't See the Whole Picture

We’ve all had those moments that test our self-awareness. You know the one where someone says something about how they see you – either directly or through 360 feedback – and it just doesn’t match your self-image. “That’s not right – I don’t see myself that way!” We experience a fair amount of denial, but on some level, we fear the feedback might be true. In reality, very few people are willing to give us constructive feedback and left to our own devices, our tendency is to stick with our own story of ourselves.

Many research studies show we don’t know ourselves as well as we think we do. According to Chance and Norton, “self-deception is presumed to arise from a motivated desire to see the self and world in ways that favor the self.” The problem is if we can’t see ourselves realistically, we can’t understand our real influence on others, which affects our relationships, effectiveness, and opportunities for career advancement.

We see this self-awareness challenge a lot in leadership coaching (which is why most executive coaches use some form of 360 feedback). Even when leaders can acknowledge the way others are experiencing them, they still need to understand why they do what they do – the motivation behind their behavior – and see how the same patterns often repeat themselves over and over again.

One story that comes to mind is about a sales leader named Tom. He is warm, engaging, collaborative, and a little paranoid. His track record of building successful sales teams is fantastic. Tom is process oriented, encouraging, and willing to roll up his sleeves to close business. People love working for him. Where he tends to get into trouble is with his peers and senior leadership. He’s constantly doubting intentions and questioning why things are done a certain way; predicting dire straits ahead, calling out phonies in less than politically correct ways, and is self-deprecating to a fault.

Tom’s 360 feedback made it clear that his direct reports valued his “in the trenches” mentality and they knew he “had their backs.” His peers frequently reported feeling like they were being questioned by Tom and they didn’t think he trusted them or shared enough information. Tom liked to figure things out on his own when he could and was often highly protective of his direct reports (almost an “us vs. them” mentality). It seemed apparent that unless Tom started to collaborate at a higher level and showed his cards more with his peers, he would never build trusting relationships nor get promoted. His superiors really appreciated Tom’s loyalty and responsibility, and knew he could be counted on to bring in deals when they desperately needed the revenue. But when asked about his potential for advancement, they had to admit he wasn’t seen as a strong senior leader and they felt he lacked executive presence and optimism. These senior leaders reported that he often shared negative views about organizational issues and some of his peers outside of the sales organization.

Tom saw himself as a loyal, hardworking team player and he was determined to understand how his behavior might not come across that way. Among several self-assessments Tom took was the Enneagram, a personality system that looks at the motivation behind our behavior – the WHY behind our actions. According to David Daniels, “each one of us developed one of nine patterns to protect a specific aspect of the self that felt threatened as our own personality was developing.” Finding your type on the Enneagram opens the door for you to see your unconscious motivations and how they have the potential to put your behavior on autopilot – where your focus is on one main concern. After a typing interview and some self-observation, Tom landed in Type Six, also referred to as the Loyal Skeptic. The focus of attention for Type Six is on hazards and what might go wrong so they can prevent bad things from happening. People who lead with a Type Six personality tend to be natural problem solvers as well as loyal, responsible, methodical, and many times, doubting of themselves, others, and rapid change.

Being able to understand his personality type, his motivations, and his triggers, led Tom to loosen his grip on his need for certainty. Tom can now see how his focus of attention gets hooked on what might go wrong so he can anticipate potential harm. Because of this, he is a troubleshooter and prevents high-risk. AND sometimes he is suspicious of colleagues and situations that are not harmful and this undermines trust and camaraderie at higher levels. He can also be risk-averse and a slow adopter of new processes and technologies that could help him and his team to be more efficient. With this clearer understanding of himself, Tom is better able to leverage his strengths of problem solving in a more balanced and effective way.

Instead of questioning his peers in a way that conveys suspicion or doubt, he now starts his conversations with one thing that is going well and what he appreciates before getting into his concerns. And when he needs more context (as people with Type Six frequently desire), he limits his questions to bigger picture issues and lets go of the smaller stuff. With his superiors and in executive presentations, Tom still uses his wry sense of humor, but now is conscious of limiting self-deprecating remarks. He voices his critical concerns, but now with more objectivity and less emotional reactivity.

Tom can see more of the whole picture. With his self-awareness to catch the behaviors that once ran on autopilot, Tom has built stronger peer relationships and greater executive presence in a truly authentic way and his influence is growing.

The good news is that we can all learn to “press pause,” step back, and observe our behaviors so we can gain self-awareness and manage unconscious tendencies that get in our own way. We can shed some of the stories we tell ourselves and see a more accurate picture of reality. As Ann Fudge, former chairman and CEO of Young & Rubicam Brands has said, “All of us have the spark of leadership in us. The challenge is to understand ourselves well enough to discover where we can use our leadership gifts to serve others.”