Attaining Self-Awareness Through Feedback

Bill George

Self-AwarenessAccording to the jazz pianist Thelonious Monk, “A genius is the one most like himself.” Similar logic applies to leaders. In Discover Your True North I explain how you can grow as an authentic leader by mining your life story to reveal your true nature.

Becoming self-aware almost always requires help. As Kroger CEO David Dillon learned when he lost an election, it’s not always your opinion that matters.[1] To realize your potential, it is important to understand how the person you project into the world is received.

The importance of honest feedback

Dillon went on to become the student body president at the University of Kansas after he learned to accept feedback. “Feedback helps you take the blinders off, face reality, and see yourself as you really are,” he says of his experience. Dillon also points out that his natural reaction to feedback is defensive. He attributes this to how he copes with negative information; as we all know, it can be tough to hear negative things about yourself. However, he makes a point to tell colleagues that he appreciates their input despite how it may make him feel. Just because something is uncomfortable, doesn’t mean it’s wrong. It takes maturity to graciously accept truths about yourself that you’d rather not hear.

As you become a leader, you need others to help you take a step back and review where you stand.

Different feedback gets different results

Experts still debate whether positive or negative feedback is more beneficial to goal attainment. Studies suggest each is valuable, depending on the context. For example: humans are more likely to continue a behavior when feedback rewards them for commitment to a goal. Negative feedback, however, is more effective when a person needs a push to make progress toward a goal.

This nuanced approach to feedback may be critical to your success as a leader. How can you solicit feedback and interpret it in a way that allows you to get a full picture of your actions? Try getting anonymous written feedback from those who work closely with you. This way, no one is afraid to be honest and you can read and internalize the feedback at your own pace.

Redundancy is valuable

It’s one thing to receive a piece of feedback. It’s another to receive the exact same feedback from four or five different people. If a large sample size says the same thing about your behavior, it may lead you to make a positive change.

Have you ever seen the digital “Your Speed” signs on roadways that tell you how fast you are going as you drive past? This, of course, is information you can find at any moment, as all cars have speedometers. But having it projected at you from a different angle, getting the information in a unique way may do a lot to alter your behavior.

Garden Grove, a community near Orange County, installed the “Your Speed” signs in school zones where speeding was a problem. The community was excited when drivers who passed the signs slowed an average of 14 percent, according to Wired. The article highlights the success of the “Your Speed” signs as evidence of a “feedback loop.”

In so many areas of life, we succeed when we have some sense of where we stand and some evaluation of our progress. Indeed, we tend to crave this sort of information; it’s something we viscerally want to know, good or bad. As Stanford’s Bandura put it, “People are proactive, aspiring organisms.” Feedback taps into those aspirations.

Through the “Your Speed” signs, information was gathered and presented to an individual in a relevant way. Then clear action came of it. Feedback loops, even ones that present information you already knew in a more immediate way, may cause you to alter your behavior in a positive fashion.

Next time you solicit feedback, ask colleagues to write down what might seem obvious. Does information you know become more relevant if it is repackaged and presented to you in a fresh manner?

Self-awareness through feedback takes time

Unfortunately, for those of us who like quick, tangible results, self-awareness isn’t easy. It comes with time and experience. It may take years to learn how you react to different situations—and it may take even longer to cull less productive aspects of your personality from your nature. Self-awareness is, in keeping with the spirit of jazz, not an art form you learn in a single day. It is a lifetime pursuit of trial and error, mastered over time. Once you attain this self-awareness, you will project authenticity into the world.

Practice exercise: Self-awareness

Take a moment to write a letter to your younger self. What would you say to you at 22? What have you learned along the way? Often we present to the world a curated picture of who we are. If you dig through your life story and highlight life-changing moments, you can be more honest with yourself. This type of feedback creates a feedback loop with the past.

Learn more about this topic in Chapter 4: Self-Awareness

[1] Discover Your True North, Chapter 4: Self-Awareness, p. 96

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