Screen Shot 2015-06-04 at 11.10.24 amPeople don’t check their emotions at the door when they come to work. Understanding the rational and irrational nature of humans (especially yourself) is an integral part of being able to lead effectively.


Leena, an experienced manager, found herself in charge of a new team after a company restructure. Things got off to a rocky start when Leena made one of her usual sarcastic quips, and it fell flat. She was taken aback that no one laughed and hurriedly tried to recover by putting one of her team members on the spot, asking for his analysis of the company’s latest proposal. She didn’t notice that the rest of the team shuffled uncomfortably and exchanged glances as their poor colleague attempted to say something intelligent about a project he hadn’t been briefed on. Disconcerted that the meeting wasn’t going well, Leena next assigned roles without asking for input from the others. Later in the corridor, she overheard two team members complaining and angrily reminded herself to mention this in their upcoming evaluations. Things went from bad to worse. A few months later, Leena was informed her team had the lowest performance rating that quarter.

What went wrong?

First, Leena approached the new team the way she had the old, assuming it would be cohesive from the get-go and not understanding it would have its own evolution, characteristics, and style. When her joke fell flat, instead of identifying that her approach might be premature, she over-reacted by projecting her discomfort onto one of the team members and creating an unfair situation for him. She also ignored the growing confusion around the conference table, and then made a unilateral decision about who would do what without considering personal skills and preferences, thereby depriving her team of autonomy. Later, when she heard them complaining, she placed the blame on her employees rather than consider the role she might have played.

Leena failed to recognise that teams take time to develop. Humour in groups evolves based on the personalities involved and the experiences they share. From the first moment, Leena tried to dominate. When this approach faltered, she chose to maintain dominance instead of connecting with the rest of the team. She also failed to recognise that people are hired based on their genuine talents and abilities, not just to fill seats. Her own insecurities led her to ignore the unique skills among each of them possessed. It’s likely that, along with alienating team members by assigning roles arbitrarily, she also made mistakes about who would be best at the various tasks involved. Leena’s lack of self-awareness and her lack of awareness of the abilities and needs of her staff created a low performing team.

What should be done?

First off, Leena needs to understand the correlation between self-awareness in leaders and overall performance. And, then, she needs to work on becoming more self-aware.

One of the best things a leader can do to be more effective is to become aware of what drives them personally and what influences their decision-making.

For example, if we know what our strengths are, we can apply them in the right situations and know when to draw on the strengths of others within the team. At the same time, if we know what our weaknesses are and if we can recognise our emotions in particular circumstances, we can then acknowledge them and stop from reacting inappropriately.

Leena could have started off with a team-building exercise or some other kind of ice breaker in order to observe the dynamics of the group. When she faced an uncomfortable moment (no one laughing at her joke, for example), she might have simply acknowledged this internally and found a way to recover in the moment rather than passing along her unwanted feelings and making things worse.

Being self-aware enables us to be more realistic about ourselves and our judgments and, in turn, others grow to trust and respect us for this. Conversely, when we lack self-awareness, we become less credible. Others can grow more aware of our strengths and weaknesses than we are ourselves, something that puts leaders a a disadvantage.

Being self-aware enables us to balance the demands of leadership with respect and humility, allowing us to unfold our vision while being willing to actively listen to new ideas and other opinions at the same time. Self-awareness starts at the top of an organisation. If leadership doesn’t make it a priority then it’s hard to convince employees to value it. The key to building self-awareness in the workplace is to make it an important part of the development of leaders and employees at every level.

Ways to develop self-awareness

Understand your personal traits and motivations Tests like Genos, Prism, and SHL Personality Test help you to reflect on your attitudes, behaviours, characteristics, and motivations. Knowing this leads to more self-awareness.

Ask a pro  A good coach can be invaluable in providing you with feedback that can enhance your level of self-awareness. They can help you unpack feedback from others and use it to change for the better and perform more effectively.

Keep notes It can be helpful when you make an important decision to make notes of your motivations, expectations, processes, and decisions. Later on, return to them and compare the outcome with what you’ve written. This simple process, done regularly, will develop your capacity for self-reflection and insight.

Ask trusted colleagues  Identify people you trust and ask them to give you feedback on the things you say and do. Check in regularly with your team and ask what you might do better to accommodate their working styles and preferences.

If you do this often enough, not only do you gain insight about how your current team is functioning, but you are also well-equipped to move forward effectively with the next.