A middle manager for a large retail chain thinks of himself as a “get-it-done” kind of guy. If asked about his leadership style, he’ll tell you that he is clear and assertive in making sure his subordinates know what needs to be done and when. If his department doesn’t meet performance goals, he knows it is because his staff didn’t do their work properly, not because of his leadership.
Ask that manager’s staff about what he’s like and you’ll hear a very different story. What the manager considers “assertive,” his staff will tell you is angry yelling and bullying. And those performance problems? They will say that everyone is so tired of his bullying that they don’t care whether they make their numbers, or even that his behavior gets in the way of their productivity.
Clearly, this manager isn’t aware of the impact he has on his staff or of how his emotions affect his leadership. What he lacks is Emotional Self-Awareness.
What is Emotional Self-Awareness?
With Emotional Self-Awareness, you understand your own emotions and their impact on your performance. You know what you are feeling and why—and how it helps or hurts what you are trying to do. You sense how others see you and your self-image reflects that larger reality. You have an accurate sense of your strengths and limitations, which gives you a realistic self-confidence. It also gives you clarity on your values and sense of purpose, so you can be more decisive when you set a course of action.
Leaders who are self-aware can recognize when their emotions have a negative impact on their work, or on the people around them. They are then better equipped to address it in an effective way, such as through creating opportunities for feedback, experimenting with different ways to motivate their team, or being more open to creative solutions.
Why is Emotional Self-Awareness Key for Leaders?
Korn Ferry Hay Group research found that among leaders with multiple strengths in Emotional Self-Awareness, 92% had teams with high energy and high performance. In sharp contrast, leaders low in Emotional Self-Awareness created negative climates 78% of the time. Great leaders create a positive emotional climate that encourages motivation and extra effort, and they're the ones with good Emotional Self-Awareness.
Research at Cornell University showed that a high Emotional Self-Awareness score was the strongest predictor of overall success. With a developed foundation in this competency, leaders are more likely to have strengths in additional leadership competencies, such as Teamwork.
While it is easy to focus on Competencies that seem like they'll give us quicker results, such as Influence or Conflict Management, without Emotional Self-Awareness we can only scratch the surface of our full potential. This is the skill that requires the most patience and honesty, and provides the best foundation for further developing Emotional and Social Intelligence in both work and life situations.
How to Develop Emotional Self-Awareness
Emotional Self-Awareness isn’t something that you achieve once. Every moment is an opportunity to be self-aware or not. It is a continual endeavor, a conscious choice to be self-aware. The good news is that the more you practice it, the easier it becomes. Research by my colleague and friend Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, suggests that one way to become more self-aware is to check in with your sensory experience.
In my new video series, Crucial Competence: Building Emotional and Social Leadership, Professor Davidson explained it this way: “We know that Emotional Self-Awareness can begin with sensations in your body or with your thoughts. When emotions are activated, they are accompanied by bodily changes. There may be changes in breathing rate, in muscle tension, in heart rate. Emotional Self-Awareness in part is the awareness of one's own body. Neuroscientists have assigned a very specific label to this and it's called interoception, the perception of internal signals on the body. It refers to the capacity to sense one's own heart rate, changes in one's own heart rate, or changes in patterns of muscle tension. So, the very first and real foundation for Emotional Self-Awareness is interoception. It's knowledge of what is going on in the body.” Tuning in more to the body’s signals is one practical way of developing self-awareness.
Doing a Body Scan is another technique for building your ability to sense the bodily changes that accompany emotions. I encourage you to try out the Body Scan guided audio exercise that I created for another conversation I had with Professor Davidson in Develop a Healthy Mind.
For more on Emotional Self-Awareness, see my latest release with colleagues in the realm of emotional intelligence and leadership, a Primer on Emotional Self-Awareness.
This Primer offers a state of the art, research-based overview of the Emotional and Social Intelligence Leadership Competency Model, as well as the first Competency of Emotional Self-Awareness. It's a concise read that anyone in a leadership position will benefit from.