Five ways to improve your leadership self-awareness - Business Works
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Five ways to improve your leadership self-awareness

Adi Gaskell, PEX Earlier this month research by the CIPD revealed a startling lack of self-awareness amongst the nations managers. It found that whilst 75% of managers believed they were doing a pretty good job, when their team were asked, just 50% agreed with them. It's a clear example of the illusory superiority cognitive bias and such a lack of self-awareness represents a clear barrier to effective leadership. So how can you improve?

Research has identified the so-called 'big five' aspects of our personality that underpin how effective we are as leaders:

  1. the need for stability;
  2. extroversion;
  3. openness;
  4. agreeableness;
  5. conscientiousness.

An understanding of how you do in each of these areas goes a long way to understanding yourself and your performance. Strengths can become weaknesses however, so lets look at some of the pitfalls that lay in wake for us in each category.

The need for stability

Suffice to say the ability to manage setbacks and uncertainty in a calm way is a positive for any manager, but it can also have its drawbacks. For instance, over-calmness may not allow you much empathy with those that are not so confident, or you may fail to inspire others with your apparent lack of urgency. Ensuring you look at why something might fail as well as why it might succeed goes a long way to ensuring you've seen both sides of the coin.

The flipside of course is that you can be too impatient and overreact to situations. Management lore is littered with leaders known for losing their rag. The easiest way to overcome this is to verbalize your negative emotions, or perhaps writing them down in a journal. The simple act of expressing it activates the area of the brain used for self-control.


The common perception is that as a leader you need to be outgoing so that you can inspire others. It can go too far however. For instance you if you talk to much or have an overbearing personality you can stifle opinion and therefore innovation. A simple trick to overcome this is to use the 'four sentence' rule: Whatever you have to say, limit yourself to four sentences. Then ask, "Do you want me to carry on?"

The flipside is that you can be too introspective. Constant communication can be a drain on introverts, but being able to communicate or give presentations is a crucial skill for managers to learn.


Scoring well for openness is typically a good thing for the budding leader as it reflects intellectual curiosity, independence of judgement and so on. It might not help you deal with others, however. For instance, constantly discussing strategic change can create a culture of uncertainty, destabilizing the organisation. Having someone that can keep you grounded is a god send for those with this personality type.

If you are highly intellectual, it can also pay dividends to be able to simplify your thoughts so that you enlighten rather than confuse your audience.

Of course, the flipside to this is that you may be too conventional and conformist. The challenge for executives uncomfortable with ambiguity is to move when not all the information is available. Leaders understanding this tendency in themselves can work to push themselves out of their comfort zone and build up their openness to new experiences.


Getting along with others is crucial in any team endeavour, but evidence suggests that this trait varies considerably depending on industry or national culture.

If your leadership is from the Alan Sugar mould, your straight talking may be seen as a strength when facing conflicts or difficult choices. You can improve your self-awareness, however, by thinking about how your message is packaged. Remember that you're critiquing the idea, not the individual. If you're too direct, it can be difficult for team members to trust you.

Of course, you can be too agreeable as well. Whilst managers of this kind will foster collaboration and take account of others needs and well-being, they may also struggle to deliver bad news for fear of upsetting the other person. Managers in this camp should ask themselves why they need to be liked so much and build their self-esteem so that they focus more on appearing fair than likeable.


The final trait involves how structured and organised our lives are. Thoroughness is a desirable quality, providing of course that it doesn't spill over into perfectionism, causing you to miss the bigger picture. Leaders that suffer from this should apply opportunity cost thinking. Would your time be better spent doing something else?

You should also avoid the desire to micromanage your team. If you begin down that road it is likely your team will simply hide issues from you. It is better for you and your team if you coach more than dictate.

The flipside is that you have little attention to detail and are prone to making rash decisions. Instinct can be a wonderful tool, but it is not a panacea. Getting someone to play devil's advocate can ensure that you see both sides and that you have someone around to question your rationale.

So a few tips there on how you can improve your own self-awareness so you don't fall into the illusory superiority trap.

Adi Gaskell is Head of Online at Process Excellence Network.

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