Leaders: Experience and Power Hinder Self-Awareness

Even though most people believe they are self-aware, only 10-15% of the people we studied actually fit the criteria. ~Tasha Eurich

Experience and power hinder self-awareness. Yes, that’s correct. While for some leaders, they do learn from experience. For others, all that experience and power has a negative impact on their self-awareness and leadership effectiveness. Referencing the findings of this research study, it may be the vast majority (85-90%) of leaders who fall into that second category.

Self-awareness in this study is defined as how clearly we see our own values, passions, aspirations, fit with our environment, reactions (thoughts, feelings, behaviors, strengths, and weaknesses), and impact on others. And, understanding how other people view us in terms of these same factors.

I was fascinated by this study and article by Tasha Eurich in HBR because I’ve often wondered if this might be the case. I’ve seen leaders proudly proclaim their self-awareness and ability to hear and receive feedback. Then, I’ve also seen these very same leaders fire and force out the very people who provided them with that valuable and generous gift of honest and kind feedback.

James O’Toole, author of numerous books on leadership and culture said “As one’s power grows, one’s willingness to listen shrinks, either because they think they know more than their employees or because seeking feedback will come at a cost.”

How does this happen? Eurich says that once we see ourselves as highly experienced, we do less homework, stop seeking disconfirming evidence, and no longer question our assumptions. This experience can also “make us overconfident about our level of self-knowledge.”

In one study of more than 3,600 leaders, higher-level leaders more significantly overvalued their skills. This included competencies of emotional self-awareness, accurate self-assessment, empathy, trustworthiness, and leadership performance.

So, how do we become one of the 10-15% who truly are self-aware? Eurich says to “Seek frequent critical feedback.” I’d suggest a slight modification based upon my experience with leaders. I’d say, “Seek frequent critical feedback and receive and accept it graciously.”

Here’s a feedback tip. Be specific. I frequently recommend Sheila Heen’s suggestions (author of Thanks for the Feedback). Her two suggested feedback questions are:

  1. What’s one thing you appreciate about…?
  2. What’s one thing you see me doing, or failing to do, that’s causing me to be less successful than I could be? And you could be even more specific like: What’s one thing you see me doing, or failing to do, when I conduct our staff meetings that may be causing those meetings to be less effective than they could be?

Be a more effective leader by increasing your self-awareness. Increase your self-awareness by seeking frequent critical feedback.

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