Photo Credit: Marius ciocirlan,

“Self-awareness is our capacity to stand apart from ourselves and examine our thinking, our motives, our history, our scripts, our actions, and our habits and tendencies.”  –Stephen Covey

We’ve talked a lot about the role that self-awareness plays in leadership. In my last two blogs, I addressed the importance of internal tools such as leveraging mindfulness, while identifying triggers that can help you recognize thoughts and behaviors to become more in tune with yourself. If you’ve been putting any of these ideas into practice, you’ve probably noticed how powerful listening to your own thoughts can be. It’s amazing how much goes on ‘behind the scenes’ of our brains that we’ve learned to tune out, but still heavily influences how we act.

However, internal tools can only take us so far. After all, much of self-awareness as a leader is based on how your thoughts, actions, and words affect others. Though you can gain a lot of knowledge simply by being more aware, you need to go beyond that. To really find out how you’re affecting others, you need to ask them.

Here are some ways to use external tools to increase self-awareness, and some ways to incorporate this new knowledge into an action plan.

Ask Those You Trust

People lie. It’s just a fact of life. Whether it’s denying that our boss’s harsh words hurt our feelings or saying that your co-worker’s pants don’t make them look fat, we all lie for hundreds of different reasons — sometimes from protecting others’ feelings to protecting our own careers. The key to getting true input from others is to find those whom you trust, and whom you believe have your interests at heart, and express to them how important their honesty is.

Explain to them that you’re trying to gain more self-awareness and that you’re truly interested in how they perceive you. Try to find people in different areas of your life including business partners, employees, friends, and colleagues.

Most importantly, be absolutely clear on the ground rules. They agree to share with you candidly what they really see, and you agree to listen without judgment or comment, and to not hold them accountable for anything they tell you (and you keep your word on that). Then, just ask: “What is something I do that really annoys you?” Ask for the good too: “What is something I do that you really enjoy?” You may ask follow-up questions for clarification, such as “Can you give me an example?”, “Or what is it about what I’m doing that makes you feel that way?”

Resist the Urge to Justify or Defend

What’s our most likely response when someone says, “Hey, when you do XYZ, it really makes me feel unimportant”? We want to defend ourselves and justify our actions, of course! More than likely, we didn’t mean to make that person feel that way, and we want to make sure they know that. It’s important to realize, though, that it doesn’t matter what you intended. The only thing that matters is the result.

When you get honest feedback from those in your life, you must be prepared to take it at face value without protest. Will some of it be invalid and off base? Probably. But you can sift through that later. Remember, you’re simply gathering data here. You get to decide later what to do about it, if anything. The key is to show others (and yourself) that you want honesty. The last thing you want is a Jack Nicholson from A Few Good Men response because you’ve shown you can’t “handle the truth”!

Now that we’ve gained some valuable knowledge around self-awareness (for ourselves and others), it’s time to put it to use. Here are two effective ways to use our new information to increase our self-awareness:

Decide What (If Any) Action You Will Take

During your fact-gathering, what valid information came up that really resonated with you? Were you devastated to hear that a certain action of yours was causing your team insecurity or self-doubt? Are there one or two areas you think need tweaking ASAP to develop into a better leader?

It’s important to be honest with yourself and identify what actions you’re going to take (if any) to improve. It could be as simple as waiting 20 seconds after an employee has finished speaking to offer up a reply to show that you’re listening. Whatever it is, write it down and keep yourself accountable.

Remember here though that, while we tend to think of feedback as negative and requiring change, that’s not always the case. You may find that you have a hidden talent or skill you didn’t realize that you’d like to amplify. You may also find that, though something may be perceived as negative by others, it’s simply not something you can or will change.

That’s fine, too, as long as you own it and gently (non-defensively) acknowledge it to those who were kind enough to give you feedback.

 Solicit Help & Accountability

Do you have a partner in this journey of self-awareness? You should. It could be a family member or friend, colleague, or business coach that has agreed to help you improve and give you an outsider perspective. Share with them the actions you intend to take to improve your skills as a leader and ask for their help. When we’re accountable to someone else, we’re more likely to follow through. Trusted partners can also reveal blind spots and make valuable suggestions that may not have occurred to us.

Self-awareness is key to being a better leader and a much better person. By integrating the internal and external tools discussed in this blog series, you can take steps toward becoming more aware, while taking your leadership skills to the next level.

Trish Cody has over 20 years of experience as a strategic consultant for global L&D initiatives with some of the world’s top Fortune 500 companies, and has coached senior level leaders and teams in planning, designing, launching, and measuring the return for major initiatives.