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Self-Awareness & Self-Management

103

October 2012

The two factors in the title are at the heart of leadership development. Want to advance? You must build muscle in these two areas. This episode gives examples and tools to grow in both.

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103

October 2012

Self-Awareness & Self-Management

Tom Henschel

An inept expert

Frank won his position because of his expertise in an obscure accounting specialty. Initially, Frank’s boss, Lynne, hoped he would someday become the group leader. But less than four months after his arrival, that hope had died: Frank was so abrasive that Lynne had to take his two direct reports away from him in order to keep them from leaving the company.

Early in our coaching, I became aware that Frank’s version of events rarely matched other people’s versions of events. In his stories, he was the solitary voice of reason, fighting the good fight against the irrational whims of the department head. Everyone else’s stories, from the executives to the administrative assistants, had Frank as an infuriating obstruction who had no idea how to be part of a team.

When I reflected that gap in perception back to Frank, he maintained his position: he was right and they were all clueless.

When I asked him to consider how he might possibly have contributed even five percent to the situation, he repeated his version of the story, peppering it with emphatic words like “appalling” and “stupid” and “insulting.”

If I suggested that he sounded “passionate” about a given situation, he’d readily agree that he did indeed! He’d assert that he had every right to feel passionate about such a situation!

But if I suggested that he sounded “angry” or “upset” about a situation, he’d deny it and assert that wasn’t the case at all.

Low self-awareness

Frank was extremely low in self-awareness. When he denied being angry or upset, he wasn’t pretending: he truly didn’t know how he felt. He was unable to recognize his own emotions.

Conversely, when people became upset with him, he was unable to see his part in that. He knew that people around him were often upset—that had followed him all his life! He just didn’t believe that he was actively contributing to their upset. He believed that all the emotions swirling around him were like the weather or time; it exists perpetually whether you’re there or not.

I understood Lynne’s desperation to have Frank manage his interpersonal relationships more effectively. But because he was so low in self-awareness, it seemed backwards to ask him to focus on repairing relationships with other people before he was able to have any sort of realistic relationship with himself. I felt he couldn’t acquire interpersonal skills until he’d gained some intrapersonal skills.

Self-awareness without recrimination

During our sessions, I repeatedly reflected back to Frank how I experienced him. “Gee, you seem pretty happy about that.” Or “Gee, you seem upset about that.” If he’d say no, I’d often let it go. Then, at some later time I’d say, “Do you remember when I said you seemed upset? Can I tell you why I said that?”

Then I’d describe what I had observed. That he’d begun to frown. Or his volume had suddenly increased. Or he’d slapped the table. Or he’d begun intense fidgeting.

I took care to sound accepting about whatever I was reporting. I wasn’t criticizing, just reflecting without judgment.

It felt like a big breakthrough the day he said, without self-recrimination, “I guess I was upset.” Self-awareness was beginning.

Mariana’s story is quite different.

“I just can’t help it!”

Unlike Frank, Mariana was acutely aware of her feelings. She could not only describe them in detail, she could also describe the behaviors her feelings evoked and how those behaviors were upsetting everyone around her. What she couldn’t do was stop those behaviors from happening.

One example of many was this story she told about herself:

“We all try to keep our doors open but it’s created a nightmare. I can’t work ten minutes without someone interrupting me. I can’t get anything done.

“I usually put up with it for a while, but then…,” she shrugged her shoulders sheepishly. ”Just the other day, this poor guy tapped on my door to get my attention. He did it quietly, like he was trying NOT to disturb me, but I just blew up at him. Even while I was yelling at him I knew I shouldn’t be. But I just couldn’t stop myself.”

There it was again: Marina’s story that she just couldn’t control her behaviors.

So I told Mariana about The Marshmallow Test. This widely celebrated experiment conducted in the early 1970’s was the work of Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel.

The Marshmallow Test

Pre-school children were offered a marshmallow by an adult. The adult added that if the child could wait and not eat the marshmallow right away, she could have two marshmallows later. The adult would then exit the room on some pretext, leaving the kid alone with the marshmallow.

Clearly the experiment was measuring a child’s ability to delay gratification and control his or her impulses. The results? Roughly three-quarters of the kids in the experiment were able to resist that tempting marshmallow in order to end up with two marshmallows later.

By themselves those results are pretty interesting. But here’s the kicker.

Fifteen years later, kids who had not been able to defer their gratification were reported by their parents to have many more struggles than the ones who could wait.

A startling predictor

In addition, the kids who had been able to successfully control their impulses and defer their gratification, achieved significantly higher scores on the SAT college preparatory exam than the more impulsive kids—and that correlation was a more effective predictor than IQ. In other words, being smart wouldn’t boost your SAT scores as much as being able to manage your impulses!

I asked Mariana what she would suggest to a kid who was left alone in a room with a marshmallow. She brainstormed several strategies that were quite creative. One was that if a girl reached out with one hand to take the marshmallow, she should imagine her other hand hitting a big buzzer that would blare and remind her to wait.

I told her that, to me, her inability to stop herself from yelling at the guy knocking on her door was like the kids’ inability to resist eating the one marshmallow too soon. She popped the metaphoric marshmallow into her mouth (meaning she let fly with her frustrations) before her other hand could hit the buzzer and stop her.

We worked to strengthen her ability to “hit the buzzer.” In other words, we were working on her ability to stay mindful of a reward larger than her feelings. She was learning to control her impulses.

One day she reported, “I felt myself getting angry but I just didn’t. It’s not that my feelings went away. I was still plenty frustrated. But I didn’t let the feelings out like I used to.” Self-management was beginning.

Combining the two

Frank and Mariana each needed to develop one part of a two-skill cycle:

FIRST

Self-awareness (“I guess I was upset”);

SECOND

Self-management (“I felt frustrated but I didn’t act frustrated”).

In high-functioning individuals, these two skills work together in an endless cycle: Self-Awareness—“I know what I’m feeling or thinking or believing”—followed immediately by Self-Management—“My feelings or thoughts or beliefs don’t drive my behaviors; I can choose how I act.”

There are many different ways to develop self-awareness and self-management skills in yourself or in others. Here is one simple exercise for each skill.

A Self-Awareness Exercise

The following exercise is meant to be practiced repeatedly over a long period of time.

Set a timer to go off every thirty minutes. When it does, pause in whatever you’re doing and ask yourself a quick three-question inventory.

FIRST

“What am I doing right now?”

SECOND

“What feelings do I have right now?”

THIRD

“What do I feel in my body right now?”

The goal is to begin to link what you’re doing (creating a report, reviewing data, preparing for a meeting) to your emotional and physical sensations.

So, for example, you might answer the three questions by saying to yourself, “I’m building this spread sheet for Joanna. And I’m feeling really annoyed and my shoulders are really tense.”

Whatever you report in the moment is fine. Don’t judge yourself. Don’t try to change your feelings. There are no “bad” feelings. You’re just reporting and however you are at any given moment is just data. You don’t need to examine “why.” You’re only interested in how you are at that moment.

When you name your feelings, be specific. Don’t settle for “I’m feeling all right” or “I feel okay.” No matter how subtle they are, you are having feelings.

If you’d like some help naming your emotions, send us an email and ask for the Feeling Word Grid. It lists words, from strong to weak, across a range of categories such as “Fear,” “Happiness,” “Uncertainty,” to name a few.

Done repeatedly, this exercise will strengthen your ability to recognize that your actions often affect your feelings. And your feelings often affect how you’re acting.

Over time, you may come to understandings like this: “I often get agitated when I am preparing for staff meetings. Not all the time, but often.” That’s self-awareness.

A Self-Management Exercise

To develop self-management, imagine you are coaching a child who “flunked” the marshmallow test. What would you tell him or her?

Then, imagine one situation when you would benefit from controlling your impulses. See if you can apply your own coaching to that situation.

Don’t expect immediate success. Improvement in the area of self-management is incremental. Your impulses are a long-standing habit. They have a big head start over your attempt to control them!

Your ability to boost both your self-awareness and your self-management is crucial to achieving The Look & Sound of Leadership™.

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