Dr Rob Yeung is a chartered psychologist and coach at consulting firm Talentspace



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Self-awareness is fundamentally important for effective leadership. However, research – as well as my own experience of working with leaders in leadership development programmes – confirms that self-awareness is actually quite rare.

Feedback is often more powerful than our own flawed self-judgments

For a start, self-awareness has multiple components. One crucial aspect is external self-awareness – an accurate understanding of your strengths and weaknesses.

Studies have found that people’s estimates of their intelligence typically correlate no higher than 0.3 with their performance on objective intelligence tests. As another example, people’s self-judged ability to detect lying and deception correlates at a pitiful 0.04 with their actual performance.

In the workplace, a major statistical analysis of 114 previous studies by academics Alexander Stajkovic and Fred Luthans found that people’s estimates correlated at less than 0.5 with their actual job performance for straightforward, uncomplex work. And the correlation between self-estimated and actual performance fell to around only 0.2 for complex work.

In other words, many of us have some insight into our performance for simple work such as our typing accuracy or ability with spreadsheets. However, we are much more likely to misunderstand the true extent of skills such as teamwork, conflict management and coaching others.

Trust your feedback

Perhaps unexpectedly, other people’s judgments about us are usually better predictors of our behaviour than our own judgments. The data comes from a meta-analysis conducted by scientists Brian Connelly and Deniz Ones. Reviewing 263 independent samples totalling 44,178 individuals, they found that ‘other-ratings yielded predictive validities substantially greater than and incremental to self-ratings’.

Many leaders dismiss feedback from colleagues and other onlookers, but this substantial body of evidence suggests that such feedback is often more powerful than our own flawed self-judgments. Gratifyingly, other data suggests that individuals who engage in more feedback-seeking tend to achieve higher job performance.

Few leaders admit – even to themselves – to motives that are socially unacceptable

External self-awareness also requires that leaders understand their emotions and the effects of their emotions on others. For example, some leaders believe they display their anger because it is a conscious choice aimed at motivating others. However, the reality is that most anger results not from conscious control but loss of self-control; data also confirms that anger usually demotivates colleagues, inhibits innovation and stifles collaboration rather than having positive effects.

What you really want

Another important component of self-awareness is internal self-awareness – ie understanding your true values, motives and goals. For instance, many leaders believe they both enjoy thinking creatively and value creativity in others. However, in my experience around eight in 10 leaders believe themselves to be above-average in terms of their creativity and the extent to which they value creativity, which statistically cannot be true.

In addition, few leaders admit – even to themselves – to motives that are less socially acceptable. Some leaders enjoy pursuing power for its own sake and exercising their authority to punish others. Others have a great need for recognition and status – even if that is achieved by making others feel inadequate. Few leaders have the self-understanding to realise they genuinely possess such drives.

Leaders need a genuine willingness to confront uncomfortable truths

Leaders can uncover their deepest values and motivations through reflection and by completing various exercises, such as ranking lists of values, then writing about and discussing them. However, the major barrier to such self-discovery tends to be a lack of genuine willingness to engage with such exercises. I sometimes see leaders on leadership development courses paying no more than lip service to such activities, which may appease human resources but does not benefit the leaders themselves.

Don’t excuse, act

A further component of self-awareness is self-insight – being able to apply knowledge about one’s own strengths, weaknesses and values in tackling obstacles and appropriate opportunities. For example, simply being aware that you have a tendency towards micromanaging others is of little use unless you do something about it, such as seeking guidance from others or changing the structure of the department to protect employees from being controlled too tightly. I come across leaders who theoretically understand their weaknesses but excuse their behaviour or claim they already compensate for them.

The different components of self-awareness are vital for effective leadership. Without it, leaders cannot understand their flaws and how to mitigate them – or their strengths and therefore the best choices to make for career success. Unfortunately, accurate self-awareness cannot be assumed. Feedback from colleagues, mentors, advisers and stakeholders is a crucial tool for developing self-awareness; so too is deep, unhurried reflection. Perhaps most importantly of all, leaders need a genuine willingness to confront uncomfortable truths and change their behaviour accordingly.

More information

Watch our video with Dr Rob Yeung on understanding your personality.

Visit ACCA’s wellbeing hub for advice and resources to support your mental health at work.