Why Self-Awareness Can Be Hard for Leaders

https://triplecrownleadership.com/self-awareness-hard-for-leaders/Why Self-Awareness Can Be Hard for Leaders

Many leaders think they have a high level of self-awareness when in fact they struggle with it.

For leaders, this can show up in many ways. For example, perhaps you’re not aware that you:

  • are so focused on the next thing that you don’t take time to celebrate your team’s achievements
  • tend to make decisions without spending enough time getting input from your team
  • come across as unclear or too vague or indirect in your communications
  • don’t seem accessible to your team

Such things have real consequences. Meanwhile, since you’re not aware of them, they’ll likely fester. Perhaps for a long time. Ouch.


The Research on Leaders and Self-Awareness

Organizational psychologist Dr. Tasha Eurich and her colleagues researched self-awareness through a large-scale scientific study with ten separate investigations and nearly 5,000 participants across countries and industries. She found the following:

“According to the research with thousands of people from all around the world,
95 percent of people believe that they’re self-aware,
but only about 10 to 15 percent really are.”
-Dr. Tasha Eurich

In their survey of 467 workers in the U.S. across several industries, 32 percent reported working with at least one boss who displayed a complete lack of insight into how they came across to others.

According to a review of data from Hay Group’s Emotional and Social Competency Inventory, a database including information on the emotional intelligence of more than 17,000 leaders worldwide, only 9 percent exhibit a strong sense of self-awareness. Self-awareness was strongly evident in only 19 percent of executive-level women in general management roles and only 4 percent of executive-level men. Clearly, we’ve got work to do.

Why is self-awareness so hard for many leaders?

Leadership Derailers Assessment

Take this assessment to identify what’s inhibiting your leadership effectiveness. It will help you develop self-awareness and identify ways to improve your leadership.


12 Reasons Why Self-Awareness Is So Hard for Leaders

There are many reasons why self-awareness is harder for leaders than they might think. Below are 12 such reasons. Think about them from your own perspective and see which reasons might apply to you.

1. Your team members may be reluctant to give you candid feedback, especially when it’s critical feedback. Dr. Eurich calls this the “CEO’s disease”: the higher up you move in an organization, the less feedback you receive. This can be true even if you think you’re quite open to feedback. Many people avoid giving feedback because it’s awkward and uncomfortable—or because they believe it might damage the relationship or lead to adverse consequences. Due to the way their brains are wired, people will be very reluctant to provide you with direct negative feedback even if you ask for it directly, because it doesn’t feel safe for them.

“The more power you attain, the harder it is for people to tell you the truth.”
-Dr. Tasha Eurich

2. As you move up the organizational hierarchy, there are fewer people above you to provide candid feedback. The people who are above you may be quite busy and consumed with challenges. This can contribute to blind spots in your self-awareness.

3. Your openness to feedback may dwindle the higher you get in the organizational hierarchy. When you rise in the ranks, sometimes your ego starts to balloon a bit. In particular, you may resist candid feedback about your leadership derailers and blind spots.

4. It may be hard to admit your imperfections and weaknesses since you feel like you’re supposed to have overcome them by now. Being self-aware often hurts, so you may tend to avoid it. Again, this is the work of your fragile ego in defense mode. Also, you may have perfectionistic tendencies. This can make you feel uncomfortable with the cognitive dissonance between the messiness of reality and your lofty standards. Perhaps it’s too painful to look at your shortcomings, so you remain in denial. There’s a big flaw in this type of thinking: that leaders must be perfect.

5. Knowing you have a lot of experience can keep you from doing important things that got you where you are. Like what? Questioning your assumptions. Thinking deeply and multidimensionally about things (e.g., the people and context and their complex dynamics and interplays). Seeking evidence that goes against your initial instincts. (Beware the curse of confirmation bias.)

6. Having a lot of experience can make you believe you have more self-awareness than you have in reality. According to Dr. Tasha Eurich, “the more power a leader holds, the more likely they are to overestimate their skills and abilities.” She adds, “The more power we attain, the less self-aware we tend to be.”

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.


7. Perhaps you’ve become used to hiding tender or vulnerable parts of yourself as you’ve risen in the ranks, especially when organizational politics are harsh. You may not feel safe revealing who you really are. Perhaps you fear disapproval or harsh judgment.

8. You’re too busy or overscheduled so you get caught up in the daily battles and start losing sight of the bigger picture. Your self-awareness is bound to suffer if you don’t take time for reflection and introspection.

9. You may be accustomed to leaping right into action as your default mode instead of taking time to reflect properly first. Sometimes that’s expected of leaders, but it can inhibit you from inquiring into the deeper reasons for things—sometimes including your own self-sabotaging patterns.

10. You may tend to default to emotion-driven interpretations of events and encounters given the hectic pace of your days. That means not pausing to reflect on your inner state and how you may have contributed to things. And it means operating more by fear and adrenaline and less by your wisdom and judgment.

11. Your willingness to listen to others may diminish as your own power grows. Perhaps because you think you know more than your workers even though they’re closer to the issues?

12. Many people at terrible at giving feedback, so you may not have received many inputs from which to build your self-awareness. Also, think of this: how much of what you do gets observed by others during your work? How much of your work does your manager actually see? It’s hard for them to give you helpful and accurate feedback if they only observe a small percentage of your work.

Strengths Search

We all have core strengths–the things in which we most excel. Take this self-assessment to determine your core strengths so you can integrate them more into your life and work.


The Problem of Self-Deception

As if the above reasons weren’t problematic enough, insufficient self-awareness is often paired with the related problem of self-deception—hiding the truth from yourself about your true feelings, motives, or circumstances. When you’re deceiving yourself, you’re denying evidence, logic, or reality and rationalizing choices or behaviors to serve a false narrative. You’re not seeing or viewing things accurately.

Self-deception is often a defense mechanism you use for self-protection. It can become a form of self-sabotage and betrayal because it means you’re denying reality.

“You can fool yourself, you know. You’d think it’s impossible, but it turns out it’s the easiest thing of all.”
-Jodi Picoult, Vanishing Acts


How Self-Deception Affects Your Leadership

Self-deception can significantly weaken your leadership. For example, it can:

  • prevent you from seeing beyond your own opinions and priorities
  • limit your growth and potential since you’re not facing up to your weaknesses
  • lead to unethical decisions and behaviors, including justifying poor behavior, such as intimidation, harassment, or bullying
  • lead to crises because you’re in denial about problems and your own role in them

Given how important self-awareness is to leadership effectiveness, you’re wise to pay attention to all these reasons why it can be hard and all the ways self-deception can degrade your leadership.

In our next article, we’ll address how leaders can develop self-awareness.


Tools for You

Strengths Search

We all have core strengths–the things in which we most excel. Take this self-assessment to determine your core strengths so you can integrate them more into your life and work.


Related Resources


PostScript: Inspirations on Self-Awareness and Leadership

  • “’Know thyself’… is still the most difficult task any of us faces. But until you truly know yourself, strengths and weaknesses, know what you want to do and why you want to do it, you cannot succeed in any but the most superficial sense of the word.” -Warren Bennis, On Becoming a Leader
  • “We do not deal much in fact when we are contemplating ourselves.” -Mark Twain
  • “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.” -Richard Feynman, theoretical physicist

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, and TEDx speaker on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards written with his father, Bob Vanourek) and LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives. Check out their Leadership Derailers Assessment or get their monthly newsletter. If you found value in this, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

https://triplecrownleadership.com/self-awareness-hard-for-leaders/Why Self-Awareness Can Be Hard for Leaders

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