There are many surprising roadblocks, myths, and truths about what self-awareness is and what it takes to improve it. We’ve found that even though most people believe they are self-aware, self-awareness is a truly rare quality. 

We have found what stood out, and are helping us develop practical guidance for how leaders can learn to see themselves more clearly.

#1: There Are Two Types of Self-Awareness

For the last 50 years, researchers have used varying definitions of self-awareness. For example, some see it as the ability to monitor our inner world, whereas others label it as a temporary state of self-consciousness. Still others describe it as the difference between how we see ourselves and how others see us.

So before we could focus on how to improve self-awareness, we needed to synthesise these findings and create an overarching definition.

Across the studies Harvard examined, two broad categories of self-awareness kept emerging. The first, which they dubbed internal self-awareness, represents how clearly we see our own values, passions, aspirations, fit with our environment, reactions (including thoughts, feelings, behaviours, strengths, and weaknesses), and impact on others. They found that internal self-awareness is associated with higher job and relationship satisfaction, personal and social control, and happiness; it is negatively related to anxiety, stress, and depression.

The second category, external self-awareness, means understanding how other people view us, in terms of those same factors listed above. Harvard research shows that people who know how others see them are more skilled at showing empathy and taking others’ perspectives. For leaders who see themselves as their employees do, their employees tend to have a better relationship with them, feel more satisfied with them, and see them as more effective in general.

It’s easy to assume that being high on one type of awareness would mean being high on the other. But Harvard research has found virtually no relationship between them. As a result, they identified four leadership archetypes, each with a different set of opportunities to improve:

When it comes to internal and external self-awareness, it’s tempting to value one over the other. But leaders must actively work on both seeing themselves clearly and getting feedback to understand how others see them. The highly self-aware people Harvard interviewed were actively focused on balancing the scale.

Example –  a marketing manager. Early in his career, he focused primarily on internal self-awareness — for example, deciding to leave his career in accounting to pursue his passion for marketing. But when he had the chance to get candid feedback during a company training, he realised that he wasn’t focused enough on how he was showing up. He has since placed an equal importance on both types of self-awareness, which he believes has helped him reach a new level of success and fulfillment.

The bottom line is that self-awareness isn’t one truth. It’s a delicate balance of two distinct, even competing, viewpoints. (If you’re interested in learning where you stand in each category, a free shortened version of Harvard multi-rater self-awareness assessment is available here.)