Change one word; change your leadership.

It is widely assumed that introspection—examining the causes of our own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors—improves self-awareness. Yet, people who introspect are less self-aware and report worse job satisfaction and well-being. ~Tasha Eurich

I’m continuing with more findings from the research study on self-awareness I quoted in my last post. Now that I’ve had some time to ponder this next finding, it seems so obvious, especially for leaders.

Eurich says that “the problem with introspection isn’t that it is categorically ineffective—it’s that most people are doing it incorrectly.” She suggests that the most common introspective question is “Why?” That’s the question we tend to ask ourselves when we are trying to figure out our emotional reaction, our behavior, or our attitude. “Why did I respond so rudely? Why am I so adamantly against my boss’ approach?”

Here’s the reason Eurich says that asking “why” is ineffective when it comes to self-awareness. We don’t have access to all of the unconscious thoughts or feelings we are striving to uncover. Consequently, we invent answers that “feel” right, but probably more often than not, are wrong. For example, following an out of the ordinary demeaning email from their boss, a new employee may jump to the conclusion that they must not be cut out for their new job. When the real reason could be because their boss just got off the phone with their child’s principal, again.

When attempting to be introspective, asking why can also encourage unproductive negative thoughts. Eurich’s research found that “people who are very introspective are also more likely to get caught in ruminative patterns.” For example, I worked with someone who had completed a 360 review for the first time. Someone wrote a negative comment, and he went on a [witch] hunt asking everyone if they were the person who wrote that comment and he wanted to know why. He wasn’t even thinking about a more rational assessment of his strengths and weaknesses.

Which leads to the more productive introspective question, which is “What?” The reason is that “what” questions help us to be more rational, future-focused, and even empowered to act on this newly acquired knowledge.

The person with a negative comment on his 360 review could have been asking himself, “What are the situations where that comment might be true?” Or, “What are steps I could take to ensure that perception doesn’t occur again in the future?”

The point here is not to completely stop asking yourself “why” questions. But maybe consider what you are gaining by asking “why” questions. If you are only becoming more anxious, frustrated, or even depressed, then maybe it’s time to switch your introspection from why questions to what questions.

I would venture a guess that leaders who spend their introspective time asking themselves more “what” questions are more likely to be moving their organizations forward.

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