Charles Darwin knew about the value of learning when he said, "It's not the biggest, the brightest, or the best that will survive, but those who adapt the quickest."
It is therefore vital that we develop ways and practices that assist us to learn about ourselves. Much has been written in the area of leader and manager development about the need for developing self-awareness. Sometimes the challenge is to know which areas to become more aware of. How, also, do we go about finding that out?
How can we know what our “work” is, that is the intra-personal work of getting to know ourselves better: our strengths, our weaknesses, our Achilles’ heels?
Your inner “work” facilitates your paid work to happen better
One mantra I go by is “your work is your work”. What this means is that we often find ourselves in jobs or drawn to particular professions that somehow reflect that intra-personal need. This is often unconscious. Therein lies the holy grail, though.
To illustrate, I was once shown around a television studio and introduced to everyone as we went. At one point, my host stopped and exclaimed, “Oh the schedulers are late! Why aren’t they in yet?” I giggled and said, “Oh well, your work is your work.” She looked quizzical and I explained that the job of schedulers is related to time and timeliness and it did not surprise me that those folks found themselves carrying out a professional function which, on a personal level, they struggled with.
In setting up a contract with a Comms team, it was noticeable that all the communications we had with them were tardy, incomplete or contradictory. The overt, or agreed, contract with this team to was to assist them to grow a more conscious culture of leadership and greater collective responsibility and accountability for departmental processes. The REAL work, however, was apparent to us in how they communicated with us: develop some basic awareness and capability around human-to-human communication. Without this, they would not have been able to achieve the stated aims of the contract, after all. It also did not surprise us that they struggled with culture and consistency in departmental process if, at the heart of it, they continued to confuse each other in their communications (or lack thereof).
I have come to realise over many years of working with this dynamic that the deeper, often unconscious development needs are, more often than not, related to the stated, or conscious developmental needs and to the “core business” of individuals and teams.
I’ve seen social workers who feel marginalised and undervalued, while working with the marginalised and undervalued in their communities.
I’ve seen branding and marketing executives both devalue and lose sight of their own brand essence and big picture in their efforts to stand out against their competitors.
This dynamic works on us on an individual level too. There is the Manager who accessed coaching to learn how to manage conflict in a less confrontational manner. Through the sessions, he discovered much to his surprise, that internally he was highly critical of himself and beat himself up for matters which, over time, he realised were not as grave as he had come to consider them. While this coaching work began with his stated aims of managing conflict better, it quickly became more personal as he developed a gentler approach to himself. The side-effects, if you like, were that he did indeed find himself dealing with conflictual situations with his staff much more satisfactorily because he did his “real work”. His work was his work.
Leaders and managers who want to zoom into those areas of themselves to develop could do no worse that reflect on the jobs they do and the roles they hold. It’s important for individuals and teams to become more reflective of who they are as people and to discover the deeper, parallel processes at work, in order to do their work more effectively. These deeper processes and this deeper work is usually unconscious.
As is so often in life, we are, to paraphrase Homer Simpson, the cause of and solution to our problems.
So what can help us to become aware of these blindspots? After all, the clue is in the name, we are blind to them. When I hear someone say, “I’m aware of all my blind spots,” as I have on occasion, I wonder to myself if they are aware of their God-complex too.
As with so much else we learn, becoming self-aware is a discipline. We can develop practices that enable us to uncover that which is hidden to us. The source of information about ourselves can come from inside or outside. Both are invaluable.
We get inside information when we develop the discipline of reflection. All of a leader’s actions and non-actions have effects. If we consider the role of Leader to be an interconnected matrix of complementary sub-roles, a central sub-role would be Astute Reflector. When enacting this role, we can use the experiences we have in our jobs to get to the nub of our “work”. We have so many moments in our professional lives on which to reflect on the effects of our actions and non-actions. From there, we get closer to learning the things which will help us to adapt, survive and thrive.
The Astute Reflector practices the disciplines of reflection-on-action, reflection-in-action and to reflection on self.
Reflection-on-action is when we train ourselves to look back at something we have done. It means we have to set aside some quiet time for ourselves, without distraction, and to ask questions of ourselves such as:
- What was my aim or my purpose?
- If I reverse roles with someone else who was involved, what did they see me do?
- What did I do well, that went some way towards achieving my purpose?
- What did I do too much of or not enough of that meant I didn’t achieve my purpose as well as I would have liked?
Reflection-in-action perhaps requires more training, as we do this while we in the midst of our efforts. It means we have develop an ability to notice ourselves in real time and if necessary, adjust our course. While in the middle of an interaction or a task, we ask ourselves such things as:
- If I reverse roles with another person who is with me right now, what do they see me doing?
- How are people responding to me right now? Do I find their responses challenging?
- How am I feeling right now?
- Am I getting what I set out to achieve? If not, what might I do to adjust my actions?
Developing greater reflection on self is about asking those deeper questions about our beliefs, values and orientations. For some, it is best done when in nature, in silence or in solitude. These are questions that get to the heart of who we are.
- What is it about the work I do that is related to the capabilities I need to grow in myself?
- How do I delude myself?
- How does my internal picture of “me” differ from how I actually am with people?
- How do I use my power?
- What kind of leader am I?
- Am I living a wonder-full life?
Developing these practices gets us a significant way towards knowing ourselves and shining a light on our real “work”.
We get more information from the outside, through the discipline of feedback. While much feedback can be experienced just like the dissonant feedback you get from an electronic device placed close to a speaker, it is vital to be able to hear through the noise and to capture the invaluable information others offer us about ourselves. Sometimes this feedback information is solicited, often not. Within both are the kind of grit that an oyster uses to craft a pearl.
Another sub-role within the matrix of the Leader role is that of Open Receptive Learner. This role lives out the belief that how others respond to us is valuable information about ourselves. This role is able to shut off some of that internal chatter that we deploy when we hear something unpalatable about ourselves. When developing a role such as this, it helps to warm ourselves up to it. In other words, be conscious about keeping breathing even, remaining relaxed yet attentive, relating to others in a calm, friendly and curious manner.
When we solicit feedback about what we’ve done or how we behave, it is usually easier to prepare our primitive brains and receive it with some equanimity. Even difficult information can be processed because we are in the role of Open Receptive Learner. We participate in the process by encouraging others to share information about our blindspots. We may say things such as:
- That’s really interesting to hear.
- How did my doing that affect you?
- What do you think I did well?
- What do you think I did too much of / not enough of?
What about that unsolicited feedback or that chance comment that someone makes that seems to make us see red or throw us off balance? Hard as it is in the moment, it is still useful to employ some of those reflective practices and consider that what they say may have just uncovered an inconvenient truth. From there, we can make meaning of it, rather than simply dismiss it.
For a leader to develop the roles of Astute Reflector and Open Receptive Learner, they set themselves up for success.
When our daily work experiences are that grit to the oyster, rather than just “stuff to get through”, we afford ourselves so much learning. We become better at learning from our mistakes, so that we can be fully present to what is happening in the moment. We distill the ingredients of our successes. We also see patterns that were previously hidden to us, which allows us to identify habits and beliefs which serve us well and those that don’t.
Being the person you want to be involves also knowing the person that you are.