How do we stack up?

I cross paths with a lot of leaders and leadership teams. We may work together for different reasons, but invariably one common question comes to the fore: How do I compare?

Sometimes it’s said indirectly, sometimes with a laugh, sometimes with a direct request for normative data. You’ve seen a lot of us – are we high-performing? Are we dysfunctional? Is this normal? This happens at the highest levels of organizations and among new leaders and high potentials alike. It’s so human, this itch for social comparison. We don’t just want to know how what we think about ourselves, we want to know what others think about us. We need external feedback to really see ourselves clearly.

I came across some cool research recently that really drives this point home. To be effective, we need not only to have clarity on ourselves as WE experience us, but also how OTHERS experience us. The authors of this research describe how people can shake out on these internal and external dimensions: “seekers,” who are not especially self-aware on either front; “introspectors,” who are primarily inwardly focused; “pleasers,” who are predominately outwardly focused; and the 10-15% of us who are truly “self-aware.”

The case for cultivating self-awareness is pretty clear. People with greater self-aware also have greater confidence and creativity, make better decisions, have better relationships, are better leaders, and lead more effective organizations. While internal self-awareness is absolutely foundational to effectiveness, excessive navel-gazing can actually be counterproductive, not just because it only offers the insiders view, but because it can be exercised poorly. People who are higher on introspection (focusing on questions of the why of our experience) actually experience less job satisfaction and well-being. Shifting our orientation to “what” questions appears to be key. This is not surprising to me. A foundational element of the coaching philosophy is encouraging a future-oriented, solutions-focused view. Asking why insists we look backward on what was wrong, instead of on what we want next, and what needs to happen to get us there.

While internally focused self-awareness has value, it has to be explored effectively and be balanced with solid external feedback. This is especially true among leaders and high-level executives, because research also shows that experience and power both diminish self-awareness. We’ve talked here before about the effective of power both on empathy and on people’s confidence in their decisions. Similarly, people in powerful leadership positions tend to overestimate their skills and abilities. This is of course exacerbated by the fact that executives get less feedback than less experienced people. Stellar leaders are those who consciously work to overcome this barrier.

Which begs the question – how do you do that, exactly? First, we need awareness of these facts and a genuine orientation toward being more self-aware. Without this, you won’t make good use of any good inputs – you’ll be overly inclined to trust your first thought, and unduly inclined to reject uncomfortable feedback. A good coach can help “keep you honest” in terms of internal self-awareness, and can facilitate getting good sources of external feedback. Which can take different forms, both formal and informal. Leaders with a good deal of openness and humility reap the benefits of just asking people for feedback on a regular basis. There are also a host of individual and team assessments that proctor that process for you and return it back in a structured way. For some data-driven leaders, they need to see the numbers to accept external feedback.

Bottom-line: most of us fall in that 85-90% range of being not-especially-self-aware, which means we are missing out. But there’s a path forward to get us there. And the benefits are not just for us – but for our teams and our organizations as well.