Emotional Intelligence Part I: Know Thyself

Woman looking at the view from a mountaintop

March 19, 2021 

I recently attended an event led by researcher, author and storyteller Brené Brown. During the program, she shared her ideas on leadership from her most recent book “Dare to Lead.” As I listened to Brené discuss vulnerability and its connection to courage and innovation, I made an additional connection – to the cornerstone of emotional intelligence: knowing yourself. Leaning into your vulnerability means having the courage to be imperfect, acknowledging our shortcomings (while owning our superpowers!) and seeking authentic connections with others – these are at the heart of self-awareness, a critical building block of truly effective leadership. 

I’ll share a story to help illustrate the importance of these concepts. One of my executive coaching clients – we’ll call her “Lisa” – is a highly intelligent, experienced marketing executive with a technology company (*name and identifying characteristics changed for confidentiality purposes). Lisa has a keen mind and is incredibly thorough in her work – ensuring her solutions were data-driven and fully researched. Throughout her life, people told her how smart she was and she found that she often solved problems and had answers more quickly than others. This led to impatience (and some arrogance, she would admit) on her part; she believed she was the smartest person in the room most of the time and her behavior reflected it. She would attend meetings and, without engaging in discussion with colleagues or soliciting others’ ideas and perspectives, she would tell the group how it should proceed. She was right and they knew it – so why waste the time talking instead of taking action? 

When Lisa and I began working together, her peer relationships had devolved: they avoided one another if possible – but when she and her peers were forced to interact, things were tense; occasional shouting matches had even erupted recently. Lisa was frustrated and felt that her colleagues were unwilling to listen to her. She viewed herself as intelligent, driven, results-oriented and efficient; so why weren’t her colleagues respecting and embracing her ideas? 

As Lisa’s coach, I wanted to broaden her perspective so she could see how others viewed her. Through some frank 360 interviews with Lisa’s peers, manager and other key stakeholders, it was apparent that despite Lisa’s brilliance, she was doing more harm than good within the organization. Her colleagues and manager found her overbearing and combative; even though her ideas were good, they were exhausted by her behavior and generally tried to avoid her. Lisa’s assumption that she was always right led to her inability to see that engaging in dialogue, understanding others’ perspectives and ultimately achieving buy-in would result in not only better business outcomes, but create the meaningful relationships with her colleagues that are foundational to teamwork. It also became clear that her career was at stake – if she continued to bulldoze others, it would negatively impact both her current job and future success. Lisa urgently needed to increase her self-awareness: it was imperative to her career that she understand the barriers her behavior was creating and begin working toward resolving them. 

It took several sessions, but after she had some time to process the feedback and reflect, Lisa realized the gravity of the situation and the role she played in it. It was a scary leap for her, but she agreed to try a new approach to working and leading with vulnerability and courage. We put together a framework for how to become an observer in her own life, noticing her thoughts and feelings and how those drive her actions in a given moment. (For example, a thought might be: “I already know the answer and I don’t have time for all of you to catch up, so just go execute what I’ve outlined;” she may be feeling impatient and annoyed and the resulting behavior is dictating the solution to the group, without allowing them to engage.) In addition, we talked about how to begin to “show up” differently and build relationships with her colleagues: 

  1. Even if you believe you have the “right” answer, take the time first to solicit perspectives from others. Ask questions that generate ideas. Think of yourself as a facilitator; this will force a shift in the way you perceive your role in the meeting. 
  1. “Road test” ideas that invite other perspectives. For instance, preface your comment with “here’s something I’m thinking about” or “I’ve given some thought to the problem – can I test my thinking with you?” 
  1. Notice how your colleagues respond. Did they offer suggestions or were they silent or skeptical? Did their body language show that they were engaged and interested in having the dialogue or did they appear closed off? 

Using this new framework, Lisa was able to markedly change her behavior. After some initial cynicism, her colleagues and manager began to notice a difference. Lisa expanded her self-awareness, allowing her to forge connections with others that not only significantly improved team dynamics, but also – to her surprise – enhanced her personal relationships and her quality of life. 

How to Increase Your Self-Awareness 

True self-awareness takes intention and practice. And there’s almost always a gap between the way we see ourselves vs. the way others view us, which can pose challenges in our work and personal lives. In my executive coaching practice, I work with clients to identify and articulate their values, strengths, weaknesses and impact on others and begin to affect change where needed. Here are my top six tips to get you started on the hard work of improving your self-awareness: 

  1. Articulate your values. List the things that are most important to you. As Brené advises, circle the top TWO and filter all your efforts and actions using those as your guide. 
  1. Play devil’s advocate. Your “default” beliefs and worldview are not always reasonable. Take an opposing view to force you to question your assumptions
  1. Know what energizes and depletes you. Identify what motivates you and use it to bring balance to your work. By strategically planning energy-generating activities into your day, you will be able to power through the tasks that drain your energy. 
  1. Conduct an informal 360 assessment. Identify trusted advisors who know you well and are comfortable giving you direct feedback. Ask each of them: “what do you see as my strengths/weaknesses? What are three ways I could improve my leadership?” Ask them to be honest and specific – and then receive their input with humility and vulnerability. 
  1. Practice self-evaluation and reflection. Set regular goals, and break big goals down into smaller milestones. Ask yourself at the end of each day, “What did I do well today?” and, “How can I improve on this tomorrow?” 
  1. Ask for constructive feedback, regularly. We all have blind spots in our thinking patterns and behaviors. Asking for regular constructive feedback cuts through any self-deceit or one-dimensional views you might hold. Ask those who will tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear. 

Before you can manage your interactions with others, you must first understand your own thoughts, values, and feelings and how these drive your actions. Understanding how others view your strengths and weaknesses will increase both your self-awareness and vulnerability. It is in this space that you have the potential to transform into the courageous, connected and effective leader you seek to be. 

Patricia Carl