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But what does awareness as a leader and as an individual contributor really look like? And are we as self-aware as we think we are? That's what this piece seeks to explore, with a goal of challenging us to answer those questions truthfully for ourselves.
Awareness — specifically, self-awareness — is something that almost everyone claims they have. The tricky part, however, is that people who lack awareness have no idea that they lack it, because of how unaware they actually are.
So, how do you know how aware or not aware you are?
Think of all those times you’ve been driving in your car to work and the only thing you are aware of is that you got to work. You don’t remember how the drive went, whether you saw anything beautiful or interesting, or even were conscious of making any turns.
You simply remember getting into your car and then — poof! — you arrived at work.
Guess what? This is not what being aware is like.
"But, Chris, is that level of awareness really necessary to be a better leader, contributor, and teammate?"
Yes, as we must first acknowledge how much we go through our lives on autopilot, not present, and unaware of what is happening around us. We slip into those modes so easily, and we must challenge ourselves to recognize how many other times we do this.
At home and at the office.
So, as we think about awareness and how most people lack a high-level of awareness — even with the best of intentions — the obvious question becomes how do we train people (and ourselves) to become more aware?
More specifically, how do we fully develop and hone this skill of self-awareness like any other skill we teach people in school or in job training?
Before we focus on how we teach and train on self-awareness, however, we need to understand what is getting in the way of people being as aware as they think, as well as how we overcome that.
When I think of awareness, I think of it as a multifaceted thing.
On one level, there is self-awareness — knowing how we see ourselves (internal awareness) and knowing how others see us (external awareness). The knowing here is beyond how we want to see ourselves and be seen, it is actually how we see ourselves… or self-awareness.
On another level is others-awareness, which is something I don’t think gets talked about at all, and it very much should be. This is where we know how to read a room and to understand those around us (internal), and how our presence impacts those around us (external).
When we look at these two concepts independently, and how one (self-awareness) leads into the other, it's clear as day why awareness needs to be a cornerstone of any leadership training.
Why is it so hard then?
Reality is difficult.
It is something that our own minds try to keep us from seeing on a daily, hourly, and moment by moment interplay. Think about that — our own body is trying to keep us from seeing reality as it is, because our mind's #1 goal is to protect us from what might hurt us.
Our brains, like us, developed over time through evolution, and the winners in evolution are those that pass their DNA to the next generation. This is why our fight or flight responses are so strong. This is why we may see a snake on a path in woods when it is really just a stick.
A lack of awareness is our minds' way of ensuring we get our genes into the next generation.
I remind us of this because our minds do this to us even in situations that aren’t life and death — like when we get in our cars and commute to work. They play into our desires and cravings for pleasant experiences. Our mind doesn’t want us to know that we’re going to die, that nothing will last, that everything is in a constant state of change…
So, when people believe they’re aware, most of the time, they aren't. Instead, they are in a blissfully ignorant state, where the mind is shielding them from what is real — how we impact others, how others perceive us and our actions, and so on — so we can feel good.
“You’re doing great! Everyone loves you… the way you handled that situation was spot on. How could Jim have done that, he was so off-base? None of what happened had anything to do with you…”
This is your brain making up a beautiful narrative that will help you feel like you’re doing great as a leader, as an individual contributor, as a teammate, as a manager, and as an employee.
Here's the thing, though. It's all crap, or at least some of it is.
How do we create awareness for ourselves and encourage it within others?
In order to improve our own awareness as leaders and/or contributors — and train others (leaders in waiting, new managers, seasoned organizational visionaries) — we need to break through the traps and the shackles our minds have built for us.
We have to be able to disengage from the story we tell ourselves — the fictions our minds try to trick us into believing, for better or for worse — and understand what actually happened.
Then, when our direct reports come to us with their own fears, worries, concerns, or assumptions, we go out of our way to train this way of questioning ourselves as a reflex within them. We challenge them to acknowledge their own stories, what is actually true, what is possible, and where they could have been wrong.
Only then can we achieve the awareness within ourselves and our organizations that will help us achieve our most audacious and aggressive growth goals.