Self-Awareness: The most important tool in your tool kit

I have to admit how excited I am about this blog. I’ve written more in the last week than I’ve written in months. Hopefully it’s all helpful.

I want to jump in and do a short note about self-awareness. Self-awareness seems to be coming into vogue in the business world today. It’s manly to be sensitive and all that. Emotional intelligence in particular seems to be the philosophy du jour. I would draw a distinction between self-awareness and emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is a higher grain of detail. It not only includes knowing why you feel the way that you feel, but also an awareness of how your actions or even random situations affect the emotions of those around you. On the other hand, self-awareness is at a deeper level and refers specifically to your understanding of why you think and do the things that you do.

In my eyes, self-awareness is essential to true happiness. People who have it know why they feel the way that they feel and as a result they are more likely to take action to remedy the situation permanently. Because people who have it know why they do the things they do they are more likely to take control of those emotions before they cause hurt or harm. A lack of self-awareness can be the root of significant social disorders and causes much of people’s poor behavior which causes a vicious cycle of pain in modern society.

So, what does it have to do with business? Glad you asked. Who would you rather deal with, someone who lets their anger get the better of them and causes strife, or someone who can control themselves until they have the appropriate time to vent? Imagine you’re a manager. Would you rather have an employee who hears your feedback and takes the necessary time to realize its validity and take action to make a change, or an employee who argues with you and never learns from their mistakes? Even more, think about your long term career path. Do you know where you want to be in 5 years, 10 years? Do you know why? Self-awareness is one of the keys to finding that answer. It’s an answer that gives you the ability to make an actionable plan instead of wishing impotently.

One of the great things about self-awareness is that anybody can achieve it. All it takes is the desire to grow and a commitment to improvement (and a little courage). If you’re ready to make a commitment like that, then the following exercise will be a good starting point. It’s a Six Sigma exercise designed to get at the root cause of a business problem. I’ve found that it works even better to get to the bottom of emotional situations.

The exercise is called “5 Whys” and is simple. First, identify the emotion or situation that is occurring and ask yourself why you feel the way you feel as many times as necessary to understand the root cause (usually around 5). It works spectacularly well in the case of overreaction. Here’s an example.

Situation – I’ve just yelled at my coworker because they didn’t create a report the way that I wanted it. It was as overreaction and after a minute or two I realize it. Now it’s time to ask myself:

Why did I overreact?I’m fed up with them messing up. They never do my reports right! (The first why is usually a shallow answer)

Why do they always mess up? – (this is the critical answer. If you give yourself another blame- filled, shallow answer like ‘because they are incompetent’ then you are not going to get anywhere. By going through the exercise you’ve identified yourself as someone who’s looking to improve. So here’s your chance. Push past the shallow answers and think about what you have to do with it)

Repeat: Why do they always mess up? – Maybe it’s because I didn’t give them good instructions…

Why? Well, I was in a rush. I kind of dropped it on them at the last minute.

Why? I forgot about it. I knew about it two days ago but it slipped my mind. (Now you’re getting to the parts of this that you want to pay the most attention to. This is why you’ll learn your lessons)

Why? I guess I should have set up a better reminder process.

The end result – I’ve learned that I need to put together some kind of system to remind me when something is going to be due so that I can make sure I have time to give clear instructions.

Be happy, you’ve just made your life less stressful. From now on you’re going to get more of your reports the way you wanted them. And even more importantly, the person who you were putting the blame on is going to start to feel better about their work and about you.

You’ll notice that this example is far from purpose. In fact, it doesn’t even establish a true root cause. When you’re dealing with self-awareness it doesn’t have to. Practice makes perfect, in a sense. The more you do it, the closer you will come to that true root cause, and when you find the root you’ll be more excited that you would have ever imagined. The person in the example above could have gone through the same exercise and learned that the problem occurred because they didn’t understand the instructions well enough themselves to pass them along effectively or any number of other things. As long as they are learning a tangible lesson about themselves then they are moving in the right direction.

Let’s do another example.

Situation: I’m ticked off at my wife because she made a joke about my ears. This time, let’s focus on the feeling itself and avoid distraction.

Why do you feel the way you do? Because I’m the man of this house and I deserve respect.

Why do you feel the way you do? She’s my wife; she’s supposed to respect me. If she doesn’t, then who will?

Why do you feel the way you do? I thought I was safe with my wife…I feel betrayed…

Why do you feel the way you do? Because when I was in school everybody used to pick on my ears. I couldn’t wait until I had someone in my life that didn’t care about them, and now the one person who is supposed to be on my side is picking on them just like the kids in school used to.

Now, reality has set in. the person in this example overreacted and got mad at their wife because they were still hurting over what the kids and school used to pick on them about. First, it’s important that you realize that there is nothing wrong with this. This is a marvelous discovery and you should be proud that you have realized it. Most people carry issues and corresponding defense mechanisms as adults that are born out of childhood pain. The unfortunate thing is that most people live with it their whole lives. But now that you’ve discovered it, what do you do about it? It’s time to remember that your wife didn’t know any of that. It isn’t her fault that she hit that nerve. It’s time to apologize to her and tell her the truth that you’ve discovered so that she can help you work through it and eliminate the chance that someone else might accidentally push your “ear button” again. You might learn that you’ve built up a wall around yourself based on whatever weakness you’ve discovered. Take the time you need and realize that the wall defends against something that stopped being a problem long ago. You can let it down. Be free!

I hope that this is coming through clearly. The value of self-awareness isn’t just to know the cause of an emotion or situation; it is the opportunity to take action as a result of that knowledge. The self-aware person has the ability to eliminate their defense mechanisms and live a life of freedom and happiness. They have the ability to patch up things that they have broken. They are able to avoid problematic situations and put themselves into advantageous situations. All of this because they took the time to know what makes them tick, both positively and negatively.

Take advantage of it guys and girls. As time goes on and you continue to grow then you will find that it will begin to occur naturally. I’ve found myself in the middle of a fight having an internal “ah-ha” moment and that allows me to defuse the situation and apologize before the situation has even reached its climax. Another advantage of self-awareness is that it gives you a better understanding of other people’s emotions and actions and many times you will understand why the people around you are acting the way that they are even before they’ve realized it. This allows you to take action to prevent situations before they ever occur.

Take the time to work on this regularly. I promise that you won’t regret it. I’m not saying that it will be painless. But it will be worth it.

I hope this has been helpful. Feel free to leave a comment to let me know what you think or to add your own thoughts on the topic.


Posted on November 17, 2010, in Personal Development and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I think the 5 Whys as a concept is kinda brilliant. It forces you to dig deeper until you get to the root cause.

    I’ve actually used the question “Why?” as the key to undermining any form of illogic or ideology. When someone expresses an idea that I know to be wrong and that makes no sense to me, I can either point this out to them (and reach a brick wall), or let them dismantle the wall themselves by simply asking “Why?” Doesn’t always work, but this question forces a person to confront their feelings about their decisions.

    • Thanks for your comment Nick. I agree wholeheartedly, people are much more likely to listen themselves than somebody else. The trick is getting them to open that dialogue.

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