Most of us like to think we’re self-aware – that we see ourselves clearly. Apparently, most of us are wrong. Research shows that only 10 to 15 percent of us fit the criteria for self-awareness.
Why does it matter? For board directors, self-awareness is an important attribute because when we see ourselves clearly, we can be more effective in the role.
For the Institute of Corporate Directors (ICD), self-awareness ranks along with effective judgment and integrity as one of the ‘personal style’ competencies in their list of Key Competencies for Director Effectiveness.
And for readers trying to practice The Six Key Habits of the Savvy Director, self-awareness is an important skill for influencing others.
Tasha Eurich is an organizational psychologist, researcher, and author who has written extensively about self-awareness. She provides a simple definition in her TED talk, ‘Increase your self-awareness with one simple fix.’
Self-awareness is the ability to see ourselves clearly - to understand who we are, how others see us, and how we fit into the world.
Why is self-awareness an important skill for board directors? Research shows that those of us with self-awareness have more integrity, make sounder decisions, and form stronger relationships. Some of the other benefits of self-awareness include:
Emotional Intelligence (EI) is the cluster of abilities that allow us to recognize and regulate emotions in ourselves and others. Deborah Rosati, founder of Women Get on Board, has written about the importance of EI to board effectiveness.
“Emotional intelligence in the boardroom is all about minding your Ps and Qs. However, while easily overlooked, this carries with it the payoff of a more cohesive board that effectively makes better business decisions.” – Deborah Rosati
How does self-awareness fit into EI? Self-awareness is crucial. In fact it’s one of the five components of EI along with self-regulation, social skills, motivation, and empathy.
So, if you’re looking to build your EI so you can improve your boardroom effectiveness, self-awareness is the first step.
As Deborah Rosati relates in her blog post ‘Emotional Intelligence in the Boardroom,’ she often comes across board members who, lacking self-awareness, are “too busy talking and not doing enough listening.” She adds “There will be sometimes where you already know the answer to a discussion, however exercising [self-awareness] means being conscious of your biases, stepping back and considering the subject matter with neutrality.”
“The bottom line is that self-awareness isn’t one truth. It’s a delicate balance of two distinct, even competing, viewpoints.” – Tasha Eurich
There are two different types of self-awareness, internal and external. Both types impact our success in the boardroom, because both are linked to some of the elements of director effectiveness that are described in our Savvy Director framework.
Internal self-awareness – how well you know yourself. Internal self-awareness represents how clearly we see our own values, passions, aspirations, reactions, and fit with our environment. People who know themselves well have higher job and relationship satisfaction, personal and social control, and happiness, as well as less anxiety, stress, and depression.
External self-awareness – how well you understand how others see you. External self-awareness means understanding how other people view us. People who know how others see them are more skilled at showing empathy and taking others’ perspectives into account. People who see themselves as others do tend to have better relationships with them and are seen as more effective.
Interestingly, there’s no correlation between the two types – a person might have high internal self-awareness, but that’s no guarantee that their external self-awareness is also high.
If we split each of the two types of self-awareness into high and low levels, we have what Tasha Eurich called the ‘Four Self-Awareness Archetypes.’ The archetypes can be plotted on a two-by-two matrix, as shown below:
In a boardroom context, the four archetypes are:
As board directors, we need to be actively working on not only seeing ourselves clearly, but also understanding how others see us. Our goal should be to reach the upper right-hand quadrant of the matrix – the Aware quadrant.
Keep reading for two suggestions on how to reach that goal – seeking critical feedback and asking yourself what instead of why.
As directors, many of us bring decades of experience and lots of specialized expertise to the board table. On the surface, it makes sense to think that these competencies would improve our aptitude for self-awareness. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.
In fact, seeing ourselves as highly experienced can lead to a false sense of confidence – causing us to feel that we can skip our meeting PREP, we don’t need to listen to other viewpoints, and we can avoid questioning our own assumptions. Overconfidence makes us think we’re good at seeing ourselves clearly when we really aren’t.
The way to counteract this tendency is to seek frequent critical feedback. This process helps us be more self-aware and, in turn, others will see us as more effective. In the boardroom context, a sound method of obtaining feedback is through director evaluations. Read our earlier blog ‘Evaluating the Individual Director’ for more on this topic.
Perhaps you’re an introspective person – you spend time examining your own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and reflecting on why you are the way you are, why you do what you do. Surely the habit of introspection will equip you with an aptitude for self-awareness.
But no. According to Eurich, people who introspect are often less self-aware. As she says in her TED talk, “Thinking about ourselves is not necessarily related to knowing ourselves.”
It seems that asking ourselves why we said something or did something doesn’t lead to self-awareness. That’s because we’re not able to access our own unconscious thoughts, feelings, and motives – they’re trapped outside of our awareness. Because of that, we tend to invent answers to our why questions – answers that feel true but aren’t, like Eurich’s example of a manager who, after an outburst at an employee, jumps to the conclusion that it happened because they aren’t cut out for management, when the real reason was a case of low blood sugar.
The way to make introspection more useful is to ask ourselves what, not why. ‘What’ questions help us stay objective, future-focused, and empowered to act on our new insights.
So, if you’re going to practice introspection to improve your self-awareness, try the following:
Scott Baldwin is a certified corporate director (ICD.D) and co-founder of DirectorPrep.com – an online hub with hundreds of guideline questions and resources to help directors prepare for their board role.
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