Are You a Self-aware Leader?

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Organizational psychologist Tasha Eurich discusses her new book about the importance of true self-awareness.

EurichcoverMost corporate executives think they know themselves inside and out, just like they know every detail about their business structure. But research shows that most people — from CEOs to regular Joes — are surprisingly not self-aware. Organizational psychologist Tasha Eurich believes that becoming more self-aware can lead to greater success  personally and professionally. With that goal in mind, she wrote Insight: The Power of Self-Awareness in a Self-Deluded World. She bases her book partly on interviews with successful corporate leaders who have great stories to tell from their own journeys of self-awareness. Eurich talked with Knowledge@Wharton about her book on the  Knowledge@Wharton show, which airs on SiriusXM channel 111

An edited transcript of the conversation appears below.

Knowledge@Wharton: A big part of self-awareness is how we come across to the other people in our lives, correct?

Tasha Eurich: I’ve spent the last three years digging in to the topic of self-awareness. What we found is that it’s made up of two types of knowledge. One is what people normally think of, which is that introspective awareness, seeing ourselves clearly, knowing what we value, what we aspire to do. But equally importantly and frequently neglected is the idea that we should also know how other people see us. What I found is there are quite a few people who possess one of those types of knowledge, but not the other. That’s really where it gets in their way. What we’ve learned through our research is that people who have both types of self-knowledge and balance them are the ones who are the most successful at work and in life.

My research has shown that 95% of people think they’re self-aware, but the real number is closer to 10% to 15%. I always joke that on a good day, 80% of us are lying to ourselves about whether we’re lying to ourselves. It can be problematic. A lot of times, the people who have the most room to improve are the least likely to know.

Knowledge@Wharton: Is this is making our society even more delusional than ever?

Eurich: I think so. There are many societal forces that are converging on us whether we want them to or not — social media, the self-esteem movement, as well as our natural tendencies to see ourselves through rose-colored glasses.

“I always joke that on a good day, 80% of us are lying to ourselves about whether we’re lying to ourselves.”

Knowledge@Wharton: There is this want and need by some people to know what other people think about them. For many, it’s an obsession.

Eurich: It is. There are some people with those two types of self-awareness who are so focused on how other people see them that they’re actually not acting in their own best interests. They don’t even know what they want out of life, for example. That’s just another reason that we have to balance both of those types of self-awareness.

Knowledge@Wharton: There’s really no difference [regarding self-awareness] in terms of the importance of work over life. You’re trying to make yourself a more well-rounded person in both of those categories.

Eurich: The benefits of self-awareness don’t extend just to work. It helps us make smarter decisions. It helps us form better relationships. It’s helps us be more successful in our careers. People who are self-aware are much better leaders. They also lead more profitable companies. Those benefits just reinforce in both our work and our personal lives.

Knowledge@Wharton: You talked with some CEOs and people in the C-suite from various companies. Alan Mulally [former president and CEO] of Ford was one of them. Tell us about him and what he recognized?

Eurich: Alan Mulally was just wonderful to work with. He’s very passionate about the topic of self-awareness. Maybe the best way I can explain what an impact it’s had in his life was, flash back to 25-year-old first-time manager Alan who had his very first employee abruptly quit because he was just a terrible manager in some ways. That served as a wake up call to him about how important it was to know himself, to know how he’s seen. Starting in the mid-2000s, he took Ford from $17 billion of losses to $20 billion in profit five years later.

Knowledge@Wharton: That’s interesting because CEOs today want to be connected with as many people in the organization as they can. It’s not just sitting up in the suite anymore.

Eurich: If Alan Mulally were here, he would agree. He talks about self-awareness, team awareness and organizational awareness. It’s each of those three systems. To have awareness of what’s happening in the organization, you have to be out there. He was famous for eating lunch in the employee cafeteria, for responding to almost every email he got from employees. You have to look at it as part of the greater system if you want to get the greatest benefits.

Knowledge@Wharton: Can self-awareness be a top-down philosophy?

Eurich: Absolutely. The team or the organization’s level of self-awareness in some ways is completely dependent on the leader. You can’t have a self-aware organization if the most visible and influential leader is, for lack of a better word, delusional. It has to start there, but it also doesn’t end there. There’s a lot of work that leaders have to do to instill that culture just beyond their own behavior.

Knowledge@Wharton: What was the greatest thing that Alan got out of it?

Eurich: His vision definitely involved money and the financial returns and shareholders, but it was so much greater. It was to be a true service to the customers and a good corporate citizen to the communities that they worked in. It was a broader goal, and that’s what I think is a great example of somebody who knows what drives them and what they value. If you look past or include the financial aspects but have a greater purpose to what you’re doing, it’s infectious to other people.

Knowledge@Wharton: You also talked with Ed Catmull, president of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios. Disney is considered to be very hard-running but gives back to the community. Pixar is a different part of the entertainment industry, but the bottom goal is the same, correct?

Eurich: It is. When Disney acquired Pixar and Ed Catmull had joint responsibility to lead Disney Animation and Pixar, he started to institute a lot of the beneficial cultural elements they saw at Pixar over at Disney. And they started to see the same benefits. There’s one example I give in the book about how in all the years that Pixar has been in business they have never had a single leak to the press. That’s such a great example of what happens when a leader has that organizational awareness, but also has a dialogue. In addition to hearing things from their employees, they trust them with the truth. In doing so, they have created a powerful culture where people keep information to themselves.

“You can’t have a self-aware organization if the most visible and influential leader is, for lack of a better word, delusional.”

Knowledge@Wharton: Is some of that the personal connection he has with his employees at Pixar, compared with sitting down in an auditorium and talking with the lot of them?

Eurich: It’s all of the above. He is so committed to having that time that there’s an example he talks about in his book, Creativity, Inc., where they closed Pixar for an entire day to have what they called Notes Day. It was an opportunity for people to help solve problems, to convey information that might not been known by senior management. He thinks big, but he also operates on a one-on-one level. It’s not uncommon for him to be in the lunchroom sitting with folks and just having lunch and chatting.

Knowledge@Wharton: Can people improve their self-awareness?

Eurich: They can. Even though many of us have more work to do than we think, I see this as a positive message for that very reason. There are a lot of myths surrounding what it takes to become more self-aware, and that’s largely why I’m so passionate about this. I want to help people bust those myths, to spend their time wisely. The benefits we can get are just unbelievably powerful, both at work and at home.

Knowledge@Wharton: What’s the biggest myth?

Eurich: There are so many, but one example I found shocking was that the act of analyzing or reflecting on ourselves does not always produce insight about ourselves. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in this deep psychological excavation of our innermost workings and motives that it actually confuses us. It takes us away from the greater issues, and it negatively impacts our mood and well-being. One way to combat that is instead of going deep, going wide. Look at the themes and patterns between the events in your life. If you’re trying to figure out your ideal work environment, think about your last three or four jobs and what you liked about them, what you didn’t. You’re not doing that deep Freudian excavation, but you’re looking for those patterns, which can be so much more informative.

Knowledge@Wharton: In an office setting, there are times when people don’t feel like they can be forthright and honest with their manager. That is part of the problem that develops with helping people be more self-aware, correct?

Eurich: It’s true. One of the things I tell people is that other people’s self-awareness journey is not yours to own. If someone is saying, “Gosh, my boss is so not self-aware; I don’t even know what to do” — it can do more harm than good if you decide to take that on. But if we flip the coin and you are the leader that we’re talking about, there’s a lot of things you can do to instill a culture of truth-telling.

There’s a lot of ways you can get feedback in a confidential way. Many people are familiar with the 360 process where it’s a numeric, anonymous survey by which you get the results. But what I’ve found is there have to be certain building blocks in place before leaders can say, “Why don’t you just tell me the truth about how you see me,” because not only will people feel uncomfortable doing that, they might just sugarcoat everything.

Knowledge@Wharton: Having this understanding about one’s self and being able to discuss these things in the corporate culture makes for a better overall operation.

Eurich: When Alan Mulally was telling me about Ford’s turnaround and his journey, he told me the single moment that was the most important part of that process was when his executive team started being comfortable telling him the truth. In that case, it was the truth about what was going on in the business. Mulally had a weekly meeting that he called the Business Process Review where his team would come in and give him reports on all these metrics. They were losing $17 billion, and everyone came in with green metrics week after week. He was able to instill that culture of truth-telling. It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t overnight. But when they got there, that’s when the turnaround had begun.

Knowledge@Wharton: You also talk about the fact that people who are self-aware probably do things differently than the norm. In the case of Alan Mulally, it changed him.

Eurich: One surprising characteristic of self-aware leaders is humility. One of the ways to build trust with your team is to be vulnerable and not give the impression that you’re perfect, to engage them with questions that rely on their expertise and leverage that. There are a lot of traits, but I think that is one that I really saw in Alan Mulally that helped him instill that culture of self-awareness.

Knowledge@Wharton: Who are some other executives that have figured this out?

“Sometimes we get so wrapped up in this deep psychological excavation of our innermost workings and motives that it actually confuses us.”

Eurich: There were quite a few examples from the startup community. There’s one leader I’m thinking of in particular whose name is Levi King. He leads a company called Nav, and I think it’s his eighth successful startup. He has a journey very similar to Alan Mulally’s, where he started off with a pretty rude awakening about what his leadership style was to other people.

But one interesting thing that he talked about is just because you get feedback about something you’re doing poorly as a leader doesn’t always mean that you have to or can or should change it. One thing he talks about is how his journey was to learn that he’s just not a great communicator. He read so many books about brain science and communication, and he concluded that he wasn’t going to make a dramatic improvement. What he did instead was be honest about it, tell his employees what his intentions were and that he really was trying his best. I think that’s such a great example of why it’s never as simple as it seems. Sometimes we get feedback and the knee-jerk reaction is to try to change our personality. But that’s not the only option we have.

Knowledge@Wharton: Are more organizations aware of why these elements are important to the culture and success of the business?

Eurich: I’m a little conflicted on that. What I see in a lot of companies are platitudes about self-awareness. What I mean by that is people just parroting, “Oh, self-awareness is so important.” You go into their organization and talk to their team and they say, “I can’t tell the truth to anyone or I’ll be fired.”

It’s a lack of consistency between what is said about the importance of self-awareness and what is actually seen and done. That’s where it just goes back to that individual-level statistic. Most people think they’re self-aware so they can brag about how important it is, but what they’re missing is how much work they usually have to do in that area.

Knowledge@Wharton: What is the most common reaction when they find out they’re not as self-aware as they think?

Eurich: In my job as an executive coach to the Fortune 500 world, I am often hired to tell very senior, very powerful people the truth when everyone else is afraid to or they don’t want to. I’ve seen every reaction in the book. I’ve seen silence. People have literally run away from the conference room I’ve been in with them. I’ve seen crying. I’ve seen anger. But the important thing about this, and what I’ve learned from studying highly self-aware people, is we have to see that as part of the journey. It’s a moment that is scary, but that ultimately is giving us an immense amount of power.

Knowledge@Wharton: Does it matter whether you’re talking about a CEO or a mid-level manager?

Eurich: The research shows that the more powerful you are, the more senior you are, and even the older you are as a manager, the less self-aware you’re likely to be, which I found shocking. But people who are in senior leadership roles are more removed from the day to day. They have more visible roles.

You look at someone like Oscar Munoz of United Airlines, where one single misstep can spell disaster. Frankly, they have people that are less likely to tell them the truth. Even though it’s true that at every level of an organization there’s a lot of work to do, it seems from the research that the higher up you get, the more of an issue it might be.

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