Last year, a team of researchers at the University of Reading’s Henley Business School went about putting together a review of published pieces examining self-awareness at work. And after winnowing down hundreds of thousands of papers on the subject, they arrived at 86 academic works to dig into.
But their analysis surfaced something unexpected: Only a third of those articles included a mention of what self-awareness actually means. And when definitions were included, they varied pretty extensively. Some papers used awareness interchangeably with consciousness; others considered both conscious and unconscious behaviors. Some defined the self as interpersonal, demonstrated by how we behave with others; others looked at it as intrapersonal, existing entirely within ourselves.
“The lack of clarity makes it difficult to develop a reliable and valid measure of self-awareness,” the researchers wrote. In effect, there was no self-awareness standards manual.
Studies show that self-awareness is a foundation for better decision-making, higher performance (pdf), and more effective, authentic leadership. But without one clear definition, how can self-aware strivers—those of us aiming to see ourselves honestly, and use that honesty to do better work—know what we’re really working towards?
Know thyself is a charge as old as Socrates. But what would he think of modern search for self-awareness? We consulted a philosopher about what it means to pursue self-awareness—and what Western philosophical tradition, neuroscience, and germs all have to say about it.
Mitchell Green is a professor of philosophy at the University of Connecticut, where he teaches a course called Know Thyself: The Value and Limits of Self-Knowledge. (It’s based on his book of the same name.)
First, Green delineates the idea of self-knowledge from self-understanding. “Understanding is more cohesive and holistic,” he says.
Think of self-knowledge as a flashlight, where you shine a focus on your behaviors one by one. With self-understanding, you’re sweeping your light across these behaviors as a whole—parsing them, processing them, and connecting them to form a larger image of yourself.
If we want to understand self-understanding, Green offers three ideas to guide our thinking.
🧠 The cognitive immune system. Modern experimental psychology suggests our minds have immune systems just as our bodies do. Think of it as the way our brains respond to negative information the way our bodies respond to germs, sending antibodies that attack potential threats.
“If new information can somehow harm my self-esteem or my view of myself, my reaction is to defend against it,” Green says. Say someone delivers you difficult feedback on a presentation: your first instinct may be to think, They’re being unfair, or Well, they just didn’t understand it. If you can identify this natural defense, you can use it to inform how you hear constructive critique—and more readily see feedback at work not as threatening, but useful.
🗣 Arguing introspection, as told by Socrates and Plato. “The Western modern tradition thinks of self-knowledge as introspection, what we might see as navel-gazing,” Green says. That’s the idea of looking within to understand our thinking and feeling.
But when ancient Greeks like Socrates and Plato talked about self-knowledge, they didn’t mean anything like introspection. Their pursuit came from dialectic, back-and-forth arguments that help you hone your position. Perhaps you want to allocate a new budget to a creative program, while a teammate thinks it should head to a wellness initiative; as you discuss and make your case, you might generate new thoughts about why your program really matters. If you can have someone challenge your ideas, you can find clarity in that challenge—and deploy it to understand your own thinking at work.
🌀 Somatic markers. One way to self-understanding is to consider the connection between our emotions and our decisions. Somatic markers are physical feelings generated by our emotions—like your heart racing as you feel anxiety, or even if you imagine a scenario that makes you anxious.
Green cites the work of neurologist Antonio Demasio, who pioneered this idea in Descartes’ Error. These physical reactions, Demasio argued, strongly influence the subsequent decisions we make. If you can pinpoint this link between your emotions and your choices, you can better track how you make decisions at work—and let it inform your next one.
While self-awareness is key to our individual journey, it also impacts how we interact with others and operate within various systems—including work. So how can you become more self-aware at work?
- Become a clumsy student. “Outside of whatever your W-2 responsibilities are, it’s really important to have an avocation where you’re not the smartest person in the room,” says Natalie Nixon, founder and CEO of Figure 8 Thinking. Try a hobby that you haven’t mastered, one that forces you to make mistakes. In time, you’ll learn to ask new and different questions, become more experimental, get comfortable with improvising, and become more aware of your own intuition.
- Try a whiteboard of character. “In a development journey, it’s important to identify what your negative voices are,” says William Deck, an organizational coach and founder of MindBusiness LLC. He offers a simple exercise: make a simple T-chart divided in two. On one side, place the positive ideas you have about yourself and what you do; on the other, place the negative ones. By looking for and linking patterns in the chart, you can begin to identify your negative mind maps—those voices—and deepen your awareness of how they influence your thinking.
- Think beyond fear. Deck suggests a second exercise he calls If I Had No Fear—a phraseology, he says, that helps you become more aware of the potential you see in yourself at work and beyond. With a pen and paper, begin a sentence with, “If I had no fear…” Then do it again. By surfacing our wants and desires, we can better understand the path we want to take, along with what it says about ourselves.
When we become more self-aware, we can clearly see our own values, strengths, thoughts, feelings, behavior, and impact on the job. And by understanding this skill, you won’t just understand yourself—you can put it to work.
Send any news, comments, or tips for knowing thyself to email@example.com.
This edition of The Memo was brought to you by our new deputy editor, Gabriela Riccardi, who’s thinking about becoming clumsy at salsa dance. (Welcome, Gabby!)
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