How Accurate Is Your Self-Awareness?

It’s fairly well known that our levels of self awareness are generally not very strong.  The classic example of this is when we’re asked to rate our driving ability, some 80% of people believe they’re better than average.  Interestingly, this lack of self awareness tends to get worse the higher up we climb the corporate ladder.

A new study from researchers at Columbia Business School suggests that this is equally so when it comes to understanding how assertive we are.  The researchers found that there is a significant disconnect between how others see us, and how we see ourselves.

The study involved four seperate experiments, three of which were negotiation type scenerios and the fourth an online survey. 

The negotiation scenarios involved participants matched up in salary style negotiations, after which each party was asked to rate both their own level of assertiveness, plus that of their opponent.  They were also asked to take a guess at what their opponent said about them and their style.

The survey section of the study asked participants to remember a time when they negotiated in the past, and to evaluate their performance and that of their opponent in the negotiation.

How did they do?

Well, not very well.  One of the experiments for instance saw 57% of those who were reported as being under-assertive by their opponent, actually thought that they themselves were over-assertive!  What’s more, a similar number thought they were under-assertive, were actually seen as over-assertive by their opponent.  Not good.

“Finding the middle ground between being pushy and being a pushover is a basic challenge in social life and the workplace. We’ve now found that the challenge is compounded by the fact that people often don’t know how others see their assertiveness,” the researchers state.

“In the language of Goldilocks, many people are serving up porridge that others see as too hot or too cold, but they mistakenly think the temperature comes across as just right—that their assertiveness is seen as appropriate. To our surprise, we also found that many people whose porridge was actually seen as just right mistakenly thought their porridge came off as too hot. That is, they were asserting themselves appropriately in the eyes of others, but they incorrectly thought they were pushing too hard.”

So what can rectify such a lack of self-awareness?

Swift and accurate feedback is central to reconnecting perceptions and reality.  This is especially so for those in positions of power, as their underlings are often too afraid to provide accurate feedback, so they operate in a bubble of their own making.

It’s also easy to imagine that this is a problem that affects someone else, but not us, thus causing us to gloss over the issue and fail to rectify any shortcomings in our behaviour.

“Most people can think of someone who is a jerk or a pushover and largely clueless about how they’re seen,” the researchers conclude. “Sadly, our results suggest that, often enough, that clueless jerk or pushover is us.” 

Leadership capabilities

Of course, self-awareness has numerous other benefits to those skilled enough to possess it.  For instance, a study from earlier this year found an interesting paradox amongst leaders within our organisations.  It found that the informal leaders, ie those who obtain followers and wield influence naturally rather than via their formal position, have lots of self-awareness.  Sadly, the people actually in formal leadership positions paled into comparison with their more natural peers.

The study went on to reveal that the higher the level of self-awareness in these informal leaders, the higher the performance of the group they led.  It really is one of those skills that all leaders should have, and alas, one of those skills that all leaders apparently need to improve upon.


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