Feb 23 2023

It All Starts With Self-Awareness

If I had to pick one human trait that is the single most impactful in one’s ability to have positive and successful interpersonal relationships, there’s a hands-down winner: Self-Awareness. This is true no matter what kind of relationships you’re talking about — parent, manager, executive, friend, partner or spouse.

Someone shared a framework with me years ago that helps explain why this is true, which I’ve been meaning to blog about for a long time. I found this image, which is close enough to the 2×2 that was once drawn for me on a whiteboard.

Found on Google Images from Research Gate, adapted from Goleman & Boyatzis 2013

The framework is at once incredibly simple and incredibly complex.

Having true self-awareness and the ability to be reflective, to take in input and feedback, and the ability to accurately self-assess is where it all starts. “I am unhappy today,” “I am doing a bad job right now,” “I am not good at doing this task” are all pretty difficult things to say to yourself. And yet, without those, it’s impossible to progress through this framework.

I learned this framework where boxes II and III in what you see in this graphic are the other way around, but I’m not sure that matters as much as box I being first and box IV being last.

Once you have a solid level of self-awareness, you can exert some level of self-control. That’s not a guarantee — self-control is its own animal, but you can’t manage what you can’t understand. Empathy is similarly a follow-on to self-awareness, but also its own trait. How can you possibly understand what someone else is going through if you don’t understand what you’re going through?

The final box — Influence — is the result of building on all three of the prior traits. It’s impossible to influence others, to have deep and lasting relationships, and to be able to work productively together, without having a solid level of empathy and self-control.

You can be a leader without any of these traits if you’re an autocrat, whether a political one or a corporate one. If people MUST listen to you, then you can tell them what to do. But founders, especially ones who control their companies, shouldn’t be under the misapprehension that they are influencing others if what they’re really doing is ordering them around.

Can self-awareness be taught, or is it something you’re either born with or not? While most traits have a balance of nature and nurture, I am a big believer that self-awareness can largely be learned over time, so let’s call it a 10/90 on the nature/nurture scale. I’ve had a lot of influencers in my life who have, in their own ways helped me learn the practice of self-awareness, from my parents, to the professor in college who gave me my first 2×4, to my first couple of managers in my early jobs, Neal and Eleanor, to my coach, Marc who gave me my first 360, to my long-time colleagues along the way at Return Path and Bolster, to my wife, Mariquita, even to my kids. I’m sure I’m forgetting many others along the way. I’m thankful to all of them.

Want to improve your practice of management? Leadership? Collaboration and teamwork?

It all starts with self-awareness.