The art of self-awareness

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Written by Kate Lanz on 1 November 2013 in Features

Kate Lanz has some advice for leaders on identifying, and managing, their triggers for unhelpful behaviour

Flexibility, agility and versatility are all hallmarks of good leadership, and self-awareness is the starting point for leaders to generate a flexibility of response, achieve the best results and keep their team engaged and motivated. However, leaders often default to unhelpful and habitual patterns of behaviour that can hold them and their teams back.

In this article, I look at what triggers unhelpful behaviour and provide advice on how leaders can identify patterns so that their response can be more appropriately managed.

Leadership behaviour stems from habitual neural pathways that are developed over time. We are creatures of habit and none more so than leaders, who rely on a clear set of behavioural habits that helped them reach senior positions where they lead and influence others. We can easily identify typical leadership behaviours. There is the tough gruff leader, don't catch them on a bad day. There is the approachable, warm and engaging leader, but one that might default on difficult decisions. There is the sparky, entrepreneurial leader, often described as 'a bit all over the place'.

These leaders all have positive habits, but problems arise when their behaviours outlive their usefulness as they move up the organisational hierarchy. Unless a leader can develop a deep sense of self-awareness that gives them access to change, these neural habits can hinder performance and start to have the very opposite effect from the desired outcome. Notably the very aspects that were once drivers and motivators can become a handbrake on their ability to get others to deliver. This is often to the puzzlement of the leader in question, since these habits are so deeply engrained that they become very difficult for the leader to observe in themselves.

Poor behaviours are often identified at crucial crunch points in a leader's career such as promotional opportunities, appraisals or feedback from the senior leadership team. Equally, L&D teams might only become aware of them through response from the leader's team members during their own development and reviews. Another point of identification is when teams begin to disintegrate or there are low levels of engagement or support for the leader.

From a leader's perspective, as he progresses through an organisation, he extends his behaviour patterns to encompass others around him. This is most commonly seen when a leader believes that his team should be responding in the same way he would.

Let's look at an example of this in practice.

A case in point

Michael is an immensely driven and successful leader in the digital media sector, where he has highly specialised knowledge and is greatly respected. When working with his team, though, he was prone to intermittent outbursts when specific deliverables were not up to the standards he expected, or were slightly late. These outbursts were not especially frequent but happened often enough for others to be somewhat on their guard around him.

His behaviour, and lack of self-awareness to modify his response, was on the way to blocking Michael's career prospects. He was very much someone the company wanted to have at a more senior level within the business, given his vision, deep market knowledge and results delivery - on a good day he was a delight. However, it was felt that it would be difficult to take him to the next level within the organisation as his ability to keep a team motivated on a consistent enough basis was hampered by the risk of his outbursts.

He certainly had a reputation. He could be outspoken, and quite tough with those concerned, sometimes losing his temper with them. It was never personal, always about the failure of the task, but bruising nonetheless. This was especially likely to happen if he felt that he had put time in, up front, with those concerned. Somehow, at some level in his mind, the others to whom he had delegated tasks were treated as if they were part of him. He would not have tolerated the output he was receiving from himself, especially given the amount of preparation and time he felt he'd personally given to the task. Therefore, he felt it appropriate to treat others as he would treat himself.

Michael drove himself hard and had a critical and demanding inner dialogue if he did not deliver as he felt he should. He would give himself the same dressing down that he gave to others and, once done, he would then move on to the next thing. So he could not even experience this as a pattern - it was simply the way things were. This is much like the adage of the last one to experience the sea is the fish that swims in it. Michael did not even realise that these behaviours were a pattern that he was known for by others. The pattern sat firmly in his blind spot.

As such, he had no choice or flexibility in his approach as he was prevented from seeing it as an issue. He might admit that, on occasion, his tone was a little harsh and that he did not mean it to be but this was as far as his self-awareness went. He was being asked to change behaviour of which he wasn't even aware. He was stuck.

This was the only downside in Michael's leadership. He was otherwise an approachable person. He enjoyed developing younger executives, was generally a good team member and was certainly known for his excellent delivery. People liked him, but were wary as he could suddenly turn on them under certain types of pressure.

It was only as he started to push the promotion conversation at a mid-year review that this issue began to surface as an obstacle.

Four stages of self-awareness

Michael is a typical example of leaders with low self-awareness. The drive, demands and expectations that they place on themselves, and have led them to a senior position, have become so firmly embedded that leaders cease to recognise them. There are four stages involved in changing this pattern blindness to raise self-awareness and create the possibility of consistent behavioural change.

Stage one - the attention shift

Given that the pattern is in the leader's blind spot, there will need to be external intervention. This involves the leader receiving some kind of wake-up call that something needs to change. It might be feedback from the boss, an overt reaction from a colleague, 360° data or similar.  The key is for the behavioural symptoms to be called out to the leader in some form.

In Michael's case, it was the stalling on potential promotion that came up during a review. The boss felt that he should raise his concerns. This conversation came as rather a shock to Michael. The feedback should have happened much sooner, but because he was generally approachable and a decent person to work with, it had become easy to avoid mentioning anything.

A second example is Sandra, who had a pattern of being enormously friendly and open. However, she would opt out of any conflict if she ever had to defend her own turf. Unwittingly, she allowed others to encroach on her role on the basis that she was 'not one to play politics'. It was only when a fellow board member commented directly to her that he could see her losing an entire work area with significant knock-on effects that she sat up, took notice and decided to get some coaching help.

Stage two - post-interaction awareness

The second stage is helping the leader to better read the impact of his behaviours. He needs to begin to separate out, and distinguish, his own pattern from the other person and situation. This is where effective coaching comes in.

Michael first needed to process his reaction to the feedback and coaching allowed him the space to do this in private. He felt upset that this was the first he had heard about the issue, he was angry, he was ashamed to have been called out in this way. He had to work through his own reaction first in order to be able to engage with changing behaviours.

During coaching, questions were raised about what he might notice in himself first when he was personally unhappy about something. His own anger reaction became his cue to really notice how the other person was responding. Learning how to distinguish the pattern 'in the moment' was beginning. This step was critical. Michael came up with examples where he could identify that the other person started to shut down. Perhaps they were polite, passive and subdued, but probably keeping the score for later. Others bristled and, while they might not have openly pushed back, he could see that there was a more defensive 'fight' reaction visible.

This was all news to him. He had previously never paid deep attention to others' responses when the pressure was on, as the conversation was about task delivery. Why would he, if he had previously experienced them as an extension of talking to himself? He could handle it and indeed would expect it, so why wouldn't they?

Identifying how people respond post-interaction is necessary, but does not yet offer flexibility in a choice of response. At this stage, the leader can reflect on the impact of his behaviour but has not yet identified the triggers or change in his behaviour in the moment.

In Sandra's case, she did notice that people were actively making a pitch for her area. Her project was leading-edge and multi-disciplined and therefore attracted people's attention, including the attention of the senior team. Unlike Michael, she could actually notice the difference in her response when others encroached on her turf but, at the point of noticing, she became highly inactive and did nothing. Her interpretation was that she was above all that. At this point, the underlying triggers had not been uncovered but she could start to use the moment of inactivity as her prompt to pay attention and start doing something different.

Stage three - identifying the triggers

Identifying what causes reactions will only happen when the leader has become able to read the impact he is having on others. With coaching, Michael learned to look out for the triggers that provoked his strong responses. He detected that, if he felt that his own competence was reflected poorly in the work of others, he would default into an angry response and become overly directive. He lost the ability to tune in to the other's world.

Another trigger was his relationship with control. If his subordinate's delivery started to put him too out of touch with his own sense of control of the task, he would lose the ability to relate to the subordinate as an individual. It would become about him and how this might make him look. With coaching, he began to be able to read the degrees of loss of competence and control that he experienced and see how these triggered the unproductive responses.

In Sandra's case, two beliefs triggered what was hampering her. One was that others should respect work boundaries in the same way that she did and the other was that it was not classy behaviour to engage in what she called politics. Both of these beliefs held her in a very passive pattern, which also meant she avoided the stress of dealing with potential conflict, but they were unrealistic in a corporate and high profile position.

Stage four - self-management under pressure

This is the final and most challenging part of the process. This is the stage where the real change occurs - or not. How does one stay one step ahead of oneself and stop a limiting default pattern kicking in? Going back to the opening observations - we are creatures of habit. Making behavioural change involves changing a habitual response and this takes practice, in the moment, on a consistent basis.

Michael worked on developing a personalised set of practices that he could deploy when he started to feel his frustration rising. They allowed him to make the final, critical step for responding differently in the moment. Again this is where coaching has real impact. The practices have to be tailored to the individual to work.

In Sandra's case, she needed to distinguish the boundaries between hers and others' project areas. She became able to articulate this very clearly and quickly in her own mind so there were no grey areas where she should give others the benefit of the doubt.

She then worked on getting into a highly active mode around these boundaries. A plan was made for each individual in relation to project boundaries. The coaching task work was to keep her in active mode at every point where a boundary issue came into play. This involved conversations with the person making the play and asking questions that demonstrated her own superior knowledge of the area. Her aim was to keep peers engaged and on side while, at the same time, being very clear about what she was leading and owning in terms of the work. In some instances she had to have an assertive exchange in which she made it clear she was not happy about colleagues overstepping boundaries. She formed some broader alliances with senior stakeholders, demonstrating her knowledge and competence in the project area.

Flexibility, agility, versatility

When a leader has mastered these four steps, and particularly self-management under pressure, he has the flexibility to change his response with his team and his peers. Indeed, self-awareness is the starting block for generating flexibility in response. We can all default to our habitual and typical response patterns, but we have to know what these are and what triggers them in order to change them.

Agility and versatility come with practice. Once we have well understood the triggers for particular behavioural patterns, catching unhelpful patterns early, or even circumventing them from occurrence, the leader is able to choose different behavioural responses in the actual moment. This enables him to utilise the most appropriate behaviour to maintain and increase the loyalty and engagement of his team, develop his own career and position, and achieve the desired results for the organisation.

About the author

Kate Lanz is the owner of Lanz Executive Coaching. She can be contacted on +44 (0)20 3086 7678 or at


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