Self Awareness for the Cynic


Around half the content of senior management development appears to revolve around the “soft-stuff” of self-awareness. The MBA and the many in-house training courses for more junior people tend to be are the ‘nuts-and-bolts’ of business, particularly finance, some law and a stiff shot of marketing, engineering and strategy.

As people get older they have more time to reflect on themselves and others. And they will tell you that the most intractable, frustrating and puzzling problems in their working lives are other people: their bosses and their resports. Many are hungry for quick insights into how to fix the issues. They yearn for a sort of “personality 101” course so favoured by Americans that would allow them to quickly sort-out those ‘difficult’ people they work with.

Indeed there are many fix-it books that purport to help diagnose some work problem individual....the shirker, the know-it-all etc and then what to do. Their popularity is testament to the problem. But, say some, the start of the journey is understanding yourself.

So enter the management trainer: the shroach - somewhere between a shrink and a coach. Their primary message is about the importance of self-awareness. Often delivered by lazy administration of unvalidated, but user-friendly personality tests- pretentiously called psychometric assessment – they will reveal ‘insights’ into your personality.

To the cynic it goes like this: you answer ‘yes’ to questions that you ask if have lots of friends, like going to parties and talk a lot and the coach tells you that you are an extrovert. Indeed: but the skilful coach tells you what that means, why you are like that (i.e. the processes and mechanisms), the advantages and disadvantages, how other people experience you and what you can or should do about your quirky preferences. Then, and only then, is the whole thing useful.

What is the point?

The first and primary goal of coaching is self-awareness. This is defined as the accurate appraisal and understanding of your abilities and preferences and their implications for your behaviour and their impact on others. It’s reality-testing; a calibration against the facts of life.

Self-awareness is partly knowledge about the self: strengths and weaknesses, vulnerabilities and passions, idiosyncrasies and normalness. It can be derived in many ways. Sometimes self-insight comes from a sudden epiphany in the classroom or on the couch. It can even occur at an appraisal. It comes out of success and failure. What others say and yes, even by receiving feedback from a personality test.

There is, of course, a pathological form of self-awareness. This is manifest in the hyper vigilant, counselling-addicted, self-obsessed individuals who are interested in nothing but themselves. It is a phase most adolescents pass through. But some become stuck. It’s deeply unattractive and quite counter-productive. 

It can take years to find out who you are, where you belong (in the family, organisation, community), knowing what you can best contribute to others. Some people are lucky: they are given opportunities to test their skills and see their impact. They become more aware of their potential. And how they naturally behave in specific situations.

Are you good in a crisis, or do you provoke them? Do you have a good ear for languages? Are you (really) emotionally intelligent? Why do certain types of people clearly not like you? Are you a natural at negotiation and sales? Are you aware of what stresses you and what your fundamental values are?

Are you self-conscious in the sense that you really have self-understanding? Because with this comes both better self-regulation of emotions and self-management.

Surely, one of the greatest of all faults is to be conscious of having none. So how to improve your self-awareness? Three things help: first self-testing, exploration and try-out’s. Try new tasks and situations. Adolescents are famous for saying they don’t like something that they have never tried. People make discoveries late in life – often through chance discoveries.

Become more resilient

Don’t wait -you might have hidden talents at something. And then again you might not. And this leads to the second feature, self-acceptance. This is neither the over nor under estimation of your talents. We are not all intelligent, creative, insightful. It’s as sad to see people ignoring or underplaying their strengths as their weaknesses.

Third, seeking out feedback from others. A good friend, boss, teacher tells it like it is. They help to clarify crucial questions: what is really important to me? Who is the authentic me?

People who are comfortable in their own skin might, in some business settings, seem too calm, laid back and unadventurous. You see this quality in some clinicians, some religious people and some writers. They make fine advisers. 

To be really self-aware is to be more resilient, more realistic and for others more predictable. The narcissist who vainly seeks ever-more reassurance from others is unappealing (and probably unhappy) as the depressive who only sees personal faults.

For the Freudians the goal of all therapy is self-awareness. To understand the murky unconsciousness, the real self, the inner child. That can also be the source of self-obsession: which is the darker side of the quest for self-consciousness. 

I want to know- what is your experience?

Adrian Furnham, is a Vistage Speaker and founder director of the Applied Behavioural Resarch Associates (ABRA) is a Fellow of the British Psychological Society and is ranked the second most productive psychologist in the world since 1980.

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