Self-awareness is seen as a strong management capability and yet often lacking in our leaders.
I coach managers who participate in a short-term manager’s academy and who all receive a report assessing their management skills. They receive feedback from their direct reports, their colleagues, and their supervisor, along with their own self-assessment. The report helps them see their strengths (realized and unrealized), as well as blind spots.
One manager came to see me deeply troubled by her results. Sarah was results driven, and prided herself on being efficient, productive and an excellent manager. She was awesome at problem solving, meeting deadlines and was generally a focused, no nonsense “get things done” kind of person. Her boss loved her!! She discovered, however, that most of her staff resented her driving personality, brusque style and were highly dissatisfied with her as their manager. The general theme from the comments in her report spoke to the fact that she didn’t value listening and was missing important verbal and non-verbal cues that her team was struggling. Sarah admitted that she didn’t put much value in interpersonal relationships at work. She had never spent the time to get to know her staff personally but was appalled to hear that she offended people by her sarcasm and judgment.
We are all influenced by our upbringing and life experiences and Sarah was no exception. She spoke about being raised in a family where she was continually criticized for not doing and being enough. She went on to get multiple degrees and admitted ruefully that she lived with a little taskmaster in her head who cracked the whip telling her she needed to do more, more and even more. It was no wonder she neglected her personal relationships! Sarah was now at a strategic moment in her career. She was being asked:
- Where are you now?
- Where do you want to go?
- How will you get there?
Sarah could continue doing what she had always done, or choose a different course. She decided she wanted to work on improving her relationship and listening skills. She was adamant, however, about not wanting to change her high standards, quality or productivity. This was an important factor in her motivation to change. Could she maintain the quality AND also improve her relationships? I assured her that she would likely improve both quality and performance by making some changes. She was in!
We discussed how Sarah could become more self aware of her impact on others. I asked her if she was willing to be transparent and share her desire to change with both her staff and colleagues. Since she didn’t know when she was being sarcastic, she would need their help to point it out when it was occurring. She also needed their help to become a better listener. She decided to be candid with her staff and share that their feedback has made her aware of certain blind spots and now she needs their support to change. You can imagine their surprise to hear their leader show such courageous honesty. She picked two people to help in her new development; one staff member and one colleague.
Sarah decided to take on “beginner’s mind.” It simply means recognition that she was in a new territory, although highly competent in her technical skillset, the interpersonal territory that she was choosing to take on, was completely foreign to her and one that required she suspend her judgments and become more open to the value of connection and support.
Self – awareness is the most critical component to changing one’s behavior. It means having deep understanding of one’s emotions, needs and drives. People who are self -aware recognize how their feelings affect both themselves and others. Sarah realized this was her primary challenge. She needed to break her old behavioral habits and build new ones.
She also received comments that she seemed to lack concern or empathy for her staff. By empathy, we mean the ability to feel what might be going on with others. Empathy requires listening for both tone and emotional affect of the speaker. It showed up for Sarah in her inability to listen or pay close attention to what others were saying. Sarah cared deeply about her staff but because of her impatient push for results, she had not valued asking questions and listening. Sarah’s “supporters” decided to help her by giving her signals that told her when she was not listening. They worked out a system where the person tapped on their ear to get her attention.
Sarah was motivated and willing to practice. She began by meeting with each of her direct reports one-on-one. She decided she wanted to get to know each of them better. She asked questions and listened without interrupting. She practiced paraphrasing with empathy, which is not just listening to the content of the words, but also paying attention to their body language, tone and what they might be feeling. Until she heard that she had nailed it, she would try again. She also chose a colleague who had a strong engaged team and observed how she ran her meetings. She was surprised to see how more time was spent in inquiry and listening than in this leader sharing her opinions.
Her reason to change:
Sarah wanted to become a strong leader and was convinced that her lack of self- awareness was holding her back. She also came to realize that her poor listening skills were also impacting her ability to build a strong team. She had not been coaching her team for improved performance. She did not understand their frustrations or areas they would like to grow in. Her staff were not coming to her with their challenges or frustrations concerned that they would be harshly criticized for doing so. Her desire to quickly solve problems herself had been getting in the way of seeing the talent in her team members and helping them to improve and grow.
Seven weeks after the coaching and academy, I spoke with Sarah’s supervisor. She reported that nothing short of a miracle was happening in Sarah’s department. Her manager had recently attended one of Sarah’s meetings. The staff seemed more empowered and energized than she had ever witnessed before. In fact the staff seemed to be running the meeting. Sarah was sitting at the side watching and smiling. Everyone on the team was fully engaged in the discussion. She talked with some of Sarah’s staff after the meeting, and heard a consistent chime of their appreciation of the changes happening in their department and how much more cohesive their team had become. Sarah was teaching them the meeting management skills she had been learning, and had developed a coaching relationship with each of them. There was genuine warmth and admiration as they spoke of their manager. Sarah was personally delighted with the changes as well, and highly energized to continue. She found her role much more satisfying and experienced, maybe for the first time, what it was to work as a team. She noted with some surprise that she now had more time for some other projects because her team was taking so much ownership.
The work of becoming self aware, according to Daniel Goleman who wrote “Emotional Intelligence,” is the work the brain’s limbic system. Too often training programs focus on the wrong part of the brain to break old behavioral habits. The neo-cortex, which governs analytic and technical ability, will not be helpful to change habits to improve self-awareness. The only way to improve is to become aware of habitual tendencies (limbic system) and to interrupt the pattern. This takes practice and support.
Self-aware people show candor and good judgment. They can assess their own skills (and shortcomings) as well as those of others. This allows them to build strong teams and partnerships and coach for improved performance. It allows them to work effectively with others. Sarah is an excellent example.
Take on a practice: Begin with the motivation to change and then:
- Pick 1-2 areas that warrants behavior change
- Create an individualized plan – This typically requires coaching support
- Practice, practice, practice
- Enlist support from others to help you see your blind spots
Want to work better with others? Start by working on yourself!
If you, or one of your team members are stuck in behavior patterns that are negatively impacting quality, productivity and engagement, contact River Logic Partners today!