#2: Experience and Power Hinder Self-Awareness
Contrary to popular belief, studies have shown that people do not always learn from experience, that expertise does not help people root out false information, and that seeing ourselves as highly experienced can keep us from doing our homework, seeking disconfirming evidence, and questioning our assumptions.
And just as experience can lead to a false sense of confidence about our performance, it can also make us overconfident about our level of self-knowledge. For example, one study found that more-experienced managers were less accurate in assessing their leadership effectiveness compared with less experienced managers.
Even though most people believe they are self-aware, only 10-15% of the people studied by Harvard actually fit the criteria.
Similarly, the more power a leader holds, the more likely they are to overestimate their skills and abilities. One study of more than 3,600 leaders across a variety of roles and industries found that, relative to lower-level leaders, higher-level leaders more significantly overvalued their skills (compared with others’ perceptions). In fact, this pattern existed for 19 out of the 20 competencies the researchers measured, including emotional self-awareness, accurate self-assessment, empathy, trustworthiness, and leadership performance.
Researchers have proposed two primary explanations for this phenomenon. First, by virtue of their level, senior leaders simply have fewer people above them who can provide candid feedback. Second, the more power a leader wields, the less comfortable people will be to give them constructive feedback, for fear it will hurt their careers. Business professor James O’Toole has added that, as one’s power grows, one’s willingness to listen shrinks, either because they think they know more than their employees or because seeking feedback will come at a cost.
But this doesn’t have to be the case. One analysis showed that the most successful leaders, as rated by 360-degree reviews of leadership effectiveness, counteract this tendency by seeking frequent critical feedback (from bosses, peers, employees, their board, and so on). They become more self-aware in the process and come to be seen as more effective by others.
Likewise, in our interviews, we found that people who improved their external self-awareness did so by seeking out feedback from loving critics — that is, people who have their best interests in mind and are willing to tell them the truth. To ensure they don’t overreact or overcorrect based on one person’s opinion, they also gut-check difficult or surprising feedback with others.
#3: Introspection Doesn’t Always Improve Self-Awareness
It is also widely assumed that introspection — examining the causes of our own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors — improves self-awareness. After all, what better way to know ourselves than by reflecting on why we are the way we are?
Yet one of the most surprising findings of our research is that people who introspect are less self-aware and report worse job satisfaction and well-being. Other research has shown similar patterns.
The problem with introspection isn’t that it is categorically ineffective — it’s that most people are doing it incorrectly. To understand this, let’s look at arguably the most common introspective question: “Why?” We ask this when trying to understand our emotions (Why do I like employee A so much more than employee B?), or our behavior (Why did I fly off the handle with that employee?), or our attitudes (Why am I so against this deal?).
The problem with introspection isn’t that it is ineffective—it’s that most people are doing it incorrectly.
As it turns out, “why” is a surprisingly ineffective self-awareness question. Research has shown that we simply do not have access to many of the unconscious thoughts, feelings, and motives we’re searching for. And because so much is trapped outside of our conscious awareness, we tend to invent answers that feel true but are often wrong. For example, after an uncharacteristic outburst at an employee, a new manager may jump to the conclusion that it happened because she isn’t cut out for management, when the real reason was a bad case of low blood sugar.
Consequently, the problem with asking why isn’t just how wrong we are, but how confident we are that we are right. The human mind rarely operates in a rational fashion, and our judgments are seldom free from bias. We tend to pounce on whatever “insights” we find without questioning their validity or value, we ignore contradictory evidence, and we force our thoughts to conform to our initial explanations.
Another negative consequence of asking why — especially when trying to explain an undesired outcome — is that it invites unproductive negative thoughts. In the Harvard research, they found that people who are very introspective are also more likely to get caught in ruminative patterns. For example, if an employee who receives a bad performance review asks Why did I get such a bad rating?, they’re likely to land on an explanation focused on their fears, shortcomings, or insecurities, rather than a rational assessment of their strengths and weaknesses. (For this reason, frequent self-analysers are more depressed and anxious and experience poorer well-being.)
So if why isn’t the right introspective question, is there a better one? The Harvard team scoured hundreds of pages of interview transcripts with highly self-aware people to see if they approached introspection differently. Indeed, there was a clear pattern: Although the word “why” appeared fewer than 150 times, the word “what” appeared more than 1,000 times.
Therefore, to increase productive self-insight and decrease unproductive rumination, we should ask what, not why. “What” questions help us stay objective, future-focused, and empowered to act on our new insights.
For example, consider Jose, an entertainment industry veteran, who hated his job. Where many would have gotten stuck thinking “Why do I feel so terrible?,” he asked, “What are the situations that make me feel terrible, and what do they have in common?” He realised that he’d never be happy in that career, and it gave him the courage to pursue a new and far more fulfilling one in wealth management.
Similarly, Robin, a customer service leader who was new to her job, needed to understand a piece of negative feedback she’d gotten from an employee. Instead of asking “Why did you say this about me?,” Robin inquired, “What are the steps I need to take in the future to do a better job?” This helped them move to solutions rather than focusing on the unproductive patterns of the past.
Self-awareness isn’t one truth. It’s a delicate balance of two distinct, even competing, viewpoints.
A final case is Paul, who told shared his learnings that the business he’d recently purchased was no longer profitable. At first, all he could ask himself was “Why wasn’t I able to turn things around?” But he quickly realised that he didn’t have the time or energy to beat himself up — he had to figure out what to do next. He started asking, “What do I need to do to move forward in a way that minimises the impact to our customers and employees?” He created a plan, and was able to find creative ways to do as much good for others as possible while winding down the business. When all that was over, he challenged himself to articulate what he learned from the experience — his answer both helped him avoid similar mistakes in the future and helped others learn from them, too.
These qualitative findings have been bolstered by others’ quantitative research. In one study, psychologists J. Gregory Hixon and William Swann gave a group of undergraduates negative feedback on a test of their “sociability, likability and interestingness.” Some were given time to think about why they were the kind of person they were, while others were asked to think about what kind of person they were. When the researchers had them evaluate the accuracy of the feedback, the “why” students spent their energy rationalising and denying what they’d learned, and the “what” students were more open to this new information and how they might learn from it. Hixon and Swann’s rather bold conclusion was that “Thinking about why one is the way one is may be no better than not thinking about one’s self at all.”
All of this brings to conclude: Leaders who focus on building both internal and external self-awareness, who seek honest feedback from loving critics, and who ask what instead of why can learn to see themselves more clearly — and reap the many rewards that increased self-knowledge delivers. And no matter how much progress we make, there’s always more to learn. That’s one of the things that makes the journey to self-awareness so exciting. Listen to Dr Tasha Eurich Ted Talk click here