In the FBI Academy, we trained how to run down and tackle individuals who resisted arrest. I was a lousy runner and came up at the rear of every race. The idea that I could run down or even catch up with a suspect produced snarky comments and rolled eyes from my classmates.
My ego took a big hit, but I also knew my competence as an FBI agent must be grounded in reality. I needed to be self-aware so I could make an honest assessment of my skills and strengths. Only at that point could I plan for ways to grow my strengths so I could manage my weaknesses.
How important is self-awareness? A study by Green Peak Partners and Cornell University examined the performance of 72 executives from a variety of companies. It found that “a high self-awareness score was the strongest predictor of overall success.”
As entrepreneurs, business owners and leaders, self-awareness is essential to your success. It’s stupid to pretend that you don’t have flaws or weaknesses. Instead, be smart and get ahead of them so they don’t sabotage you when you’re confronted with a stressful situation.
Here are four compelling reasons you need to be more self-aware:
1. Understand how you come across to others
The way we perceive ourselves is distorted, but most of us are not self-aware enough to recognize it! If we don’t want to be known as stingy, arrogant or self-righteous, we don’t look for those qualities in ourselves. Of course, we readily identify those qualities in other people! If we want to be perceived as competent, polite and generous, guess what? Those are the qualities we find in ourselves.
There is enough ego in all of us to produce a flattering self-image that might not be congruent with how others see us. The way we see ourselves is often an illusion, and it can be a dangerous one if we misjudge how we come across to our colleagues and supervisors.
Conversely, if you suffer from a lack of self-esteem, you could be undermining your position and chances for advancement as you navigate the quagmire of office politics.
How to make It work for you: Be mentally tough enough to keep your ego in check. Ask trusted friends or colleagues to give an honest evaluation of how you come across to others in a variety of situations. Don’t take the easy route and ask for feedback on your best behavior. Let the good, the bad and the ugly hang out, and be brave enough to push for honest answers.
2. Become aware of your deepest needs
Since we all possess a somewhat muddled and inaccurate image of how we come across to others, it shouldn’t be a shock to learn that we tend to justify our motives through rose-colored glasses as well. In fact, psychologists believe it’s important that our brain sees a clear connection between our thoughts, emotions and behavior. This strong connection leads to good mental health. However, thinking or feeling one way and then behaving in a different manner causes cognitive dissonance, and we experience anxiety and stress as we try to justify the behavior.
Behavioral science has proven that human beings are motivated by several needs. At a basic level is the biological drive to eat, drink and sleep. Another motivator is reward and punishment, such as when we work for a salary and are rewarded with a paycheck. It is the third motivator that requires self-awareness -- the things we pursue because they bring us joy and contentment. Shelley E. Taylor, UCLA psychology professor, has argued that we are wired to nurture others and care for their needs.
These are the hidden needs that ennoble the human spirit, but they also take effort and time to process because they are complicated and complex drivers of our behavior. Too often we settle for a fleeting emotion such as happiness because it’s both instant and a popular meme. But, at the end of the day, our deepest need is to make a contribution to society that is meaningful to us.
How to make It work for you: You can move toward a deeper and enduring sense of what motivates you if you are self-aware. Ask yourself, “What do I really want?” Another great question to ask yourself at the end of each day is this: "Was I better today than yesterday?" Again, ask trusted colleagues or friends for feedback, but make sure it is honest and constructive.
3. Create a mindset that wins
If you think of yourself as flexible and resilient, you will do much better in both business and life. Your image of who you are influences how you behave and thus becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Carol Dweck’s research at Stanford University has determined that if we view a trait as mutable, we are inclined to work on it more. On the other hand, if we view a trait such as IQ or willpower as unchangeable, we’ll make little effort to improve it.
Dweck is well-known for her work on “fixed vs. growth mindset.” People with a fixed mindset believe their basic abilities, intelligence and talents are fixed traits. They have a certain amount of talent and nothing will change it. People with a growth mindset, however, believe that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort and persistence.
If you create a growth mindset, you have the mental toughness to learn from criticism rather than ignore it; to overcome challenges rather than avoid them; and find inspiration in the success of others rather than feel threatened.
Self-aware people can create a growth mindset that’s focused on personal growth because they believe they can improve and develop their skills.
How to make It work for you: The best way to change the type of person that you believe you are is through small, repeated actions. Focus on the process, not the outcome. Don’t worry about how to write a best-seller; instead, commit to publishing your ideas on a consistent basis. It’s not about the result. It’s about how to create a mindset that enjoys the results.
4. Prevent self-deception
According to psychologists, our tendency for self-deception stems from our desire to impress others. We convince ourselves of our capabilities in the process.
Human beings are masters of self-deception. We lie to ourselves about why we like to wear designer clothes, drive fast cars and climb the corporate ladder. Most of the time, we’re completely unaware of the deception going on in our minds.
Companies lose serious money every year due to their employee’s lack of self-awareness. Inaccurate self-assessment leads to sales targets that can’t be met, deadlines that can’t be carried out and performances that are promised but not delivered.
Interestingly, most of us have no trouble seeing through the delusions of our colleagues! We recognize the bumbling idiot who postures for a promotion or the incompetent supervisor who mumbles in meetings.
If we are self-aware and see ourselves with greater clarity, we are more likely to land on our feet when confronted with the unexpected
How to make It work for you: Honesty is the best tool to combat self-deception. It means we will need to look in the mirror and take responsibility for who we are. Honesty requires a deliberate effort on a daily basis. We must learn to observe our emotions, thoughts and behavior without judgment or evaluation. If we are self-aware, it is easier for us to focus our mind, concentrate and direct our attention toward activities that will give us the opportunity to change.
LaRae Quy was an FBI undercover and counterintelligence agent for 24 years. She exposed foreign spies and recruited them to work for the U.S. government. As an FBI agent, she developed the mental toughness to survive in environments of risk, uncertainty, and deception. Quy is the author of “Secrets of a Strong Mind” and “Mental Toughness for Women Leaders: 52 Tips To Recognize and Utilize Your Greatest Strengths.” If you’d like to find out if you are mentally tough, get her free 45-question Mental Toughness Assessment. Follow her on Twitter.