The Face in the Mirror (Developing Self-Awareness)

“O would some power the giftie gie us to see ourselves as others see us.” Robert Burns
face in the mirror

Self-awareness Vs. sleep walking

It is very easy to live life on ‘auto pilot’ without really stopping to think about what is driving our behaviour and motivating our actions. This is especially true when the pace of life is hectic and there are many demands on our time and attention. This can have unfortunate consequences for people in all walks of life. Margaret Thatcher (the UK Prime Minister) had a very effective style, for a while, but when it all started to go wrong she thought that she needed to be more like herself, when in fact the opposite was required. This capacity for ‘self-awareness’ is emphasised in “True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership”, by Harvard Professor Bill George, which highlights the importance of ‘knowing your true self’, if you are going to be a good leader.

Self-awareness from the outside in

One popular way of gaining insights into our automatic, or default, patterns of behaviours is to take psychometric inventory that help us to analyse our innermost motivations. There are literally thousands of published psychometric inventories, of widely varying degrees of validity. The most popular inventory, is probably the “Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI)” assessment, with over two million tests administered each year. Sadly, it’s a very poorly designed test; you can view a video about its origins here…

My personal preference when using psychometric inventories to develop self-awareness, however, is for the “Strength Deployment Inventory” developed by the US psychologist, clinical therapist, educator and author Elias H. Porter, Ph.D. A very robust instrument, the SDI helps people to recognise that they can choose their behaviours to accommodate their underlying ‘core’ values, while also taking into account the values of others’ (which can be quite different from their own.)

The SDI assess personality against four core values. People are a mix of all four ‘orientations’ and these fundamental motivations can drive a very wide range of individual behaviours. In a highly simplified form the four values are: Altruism (a desire to help others), Directing (having a strong focus on goals), Analytical (a preference for making careful assessments) and Cohering (a focus on team work and group dynamics).

When developing self-awareness using psychometrics in leadership teams, it is common for consultants to select the “Hogan Leadership Series” developed by Dr Robert & Dr Joyce Hogan, which has been evolving since the 1970’s. The Hogan Series of inventories contains three sets of analysis: the “bright side”, positive qualities necessary for success (e.g. tact, perceptiveness, initiative); the “dark side”, covering potential barriers or de-railers to success (e.g. arrogance, moodiness, stubbornness); and the “inside”, the internal drivers that motivate behaviour (e.g. wanting to help others, seeking out social interaction etc.) It has been taken by several millions of people in over 12 countries. The British Psychological Society awarded it the highest accolade for test development. The Hogan web site is: (and we offer the Hogan assessment and feedback as part of our coaching services… )

Another popular approach to get a sense of how others see us is 360-degree feedback, where the opinion of colleagues and peers is used to highlight their perception of our strengths and weaknesses. While this can be a valuable exercise, completing it successfully is fraught with difficulties e.g. all employees are treated equally, so the views of top performing employees have the same weight as those of low performers, who may give a low score because they don’t like their manager pushing them to improve. Or employees may mark a manager they like personally higher than they deserve (or vice versa); the same may be true if they fear that the feedback isn’t anonymous. Also, many surveys don’t ask for suggested ‘solutions’ to perceived behavioural ‘problems’, so how specifically the person at the centre of the 360 should change their ways might not be obvious etc.

Self-awareness from the inside out

Another possibility is analysing our past in order to uncover deep motivation patterns that affect us in the present. This ‘personal history’ analysis simply involves looking at some key facts from the past, and thinking about their current impact on our daily life by asking four key questions…

  1. What are three significant facts about your upbringing?
  2. What are three ways that your personal history positively affects you today?
  3. What are three ways that your personal history negatively affects you today?
  4. What can you do to escape from the negative aspects of your personal history?

The key to this deceptively simple exercise, which can be surprisingly powerful and sometimes ‘unsettling’, is to write down the answers to the four questions. The act of writing down the answers helps with processing emotions and makes it easier to consider the issues being raised in an objective manner.

Avoiding Junk Logic

A common cause of personal problems associated with a lack of self-awareness, is negative, irrational thinking patterns (also called ‘junk logic’.) According to Albert Ellis (founder of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy) there are four types of irrational beliefs that inhibit the ability to act in a constructive way, which he explores in his book “How to Make Yourself Happy and Remarkably Less Disturbed.”

The four types of junk logic are…

  1. Demands – believing that things have to be a particular way. This causes problems because it is not usually possible to control other people or the way they are. For example, thinking that “everyone must like me at all times”” is a recipe for distress as it is simply not possible to be liked by all of the people all of the time. A more rational thought would be; “I want people to like me and I will treat people well, but if occasionally someone doesn’t like me, that is their choice and I feel OK about it.”
  2. Avoiding responsibility – placing the responsibility for things going wrong onto another person. An example of this would be the person who says, “you make me angry”, or “you will make me angry if you talk to me about (x)”, whereas, of course, the person has the responsibility to choose their actions, and we have the responsibility to choose our response.
  3. Over Generalisations – thinking that the occurrence of one event will mean that things will always be a particular way. So in this case one swallow does make a summer. Unwarranted generalisations lead to feelings of frustration, worry and helplessness.
  4. Catastrophisation – thinking that some event is awful or disastrous, leading to anxiety and despair e.g. “I will die of embarrassment if I have to give a presentation”.

Hurry up and be perfect

Eric Berne, the Canadian psychiatrist and developer of the Transactional Analysis School of Psychology, proposed that in childhood there are certain messages or ‘drivers’ that are often transmitted to children via their environment and how they are treated. These ‘drivers’ then influence how people behave as adults. Each ‘driver’ can have certain strengths, but also potential weaknesses associated with them. Due to this, when a ‘driver’ is unacknowledged, in later life it can cause relationship problems. So for example, if someone became aware that they always felt the need for urgency, or to ‘Hurry Up’, one corrective action would be to consciously make the effort to ‘take their time’ over some task or activity. The five key ‘drivers’ are…

  1. Be perfect! Positive Aspect: valuing accuracy, tidiness and maintaining high standards. Negative Aspect: feeling dissatisfied because you can never be quiet good enough, finding it hard to delegate or trust others to do things correctly.
  2. Be Strong! Positive Aspect: making things happen, taking control of situations, not being overly emotional, or dependent on others. Negative Aspect: being seen as aloof, distant and getting overwhelmed by refusing to ask for help when it’s needed.
  3. Try Hard! Positive Aspect: working hard, a willingness to take on new things. Negative Aspect: taking on more than you can cope with, getting sidetracked and so frustrating other people when you don’t get things done on time.
  4. Please others! Positive Aspect: being friendly, supportive and easy to get along with, a good team player. Negative Aspect: finding it hard to say no, even to unfair requests and downplaying your own needs
  5. Hurry Up! Positive Aspect: working fast, being efficient and getting things done quickly. Negative Aspect: leaving things until the last minute, appearing impatient, being unrealistic about timelines and so having to continually ‘rush’ to get things done.

Self-awareness and energy management

Schwattz and McCarthy ague in their October 2007 HBR article, Manage Your Energy Not Your Time”  that many ‘problems’ and stress reactions can be attributed to people being unaware of how they manage their energy. Gaining an insight into how energy is being managed (or mismanaged) is, for them, the key to being effective.

They identify four classes of energy that need to be consciously managed:

  1. Physical energy
  2. Emotional energy
  3. Mental energy
  4. Spiritual energy

They recommend that people develop specific daily ‘rituals’ that create a sense of ‘renewal’ throughout the day, for each of the four categories. For example, Physical Energy could be developed by making a habit of going to bed early, exercising each morning (as soon as you get up), going for a short walk each lunchtime etc. Emotional Energy can be improved by deliberately expressing appreciation of others e.g. saying thank you, sending a congratulatory email etc. They argue that praising or acknowledging other people’s efforts causes productivity to increase, stress to be reduced and enthusiasm to be generated.

Looking through Johari’s Window

“The Johari Window” model was devised by American psychologists Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham in 1955, while researching group dynamics at the University of California Los Angeles. The name comes from a combination of their first names (Joseph and Harry.) The model asks that people assess their thoughts and feelings in relation to four ‘regions’ or areas:

  1. The Open Area: what is known by the person about him/herself and is also known by others
  2. The Blind Spot: what is unknown by the person about him/herself, but which others know
  3. The Hidden Area: what the person knows about him/herself that others do not know
  4. The Unknown Area: what is unknown by the person about him/herself and is also unknown by others

Of course in team work situations one aim of the window is to increase productivity by working to get people to know each other better, and so increase the size of the “Open Area”.

Blind Spots (e.g. not realizing that other people see you as (say) indecisive) can be addressed by seeking feedback from others.

The Hidden Area consists of dreams, desires, fears, preferences, secrets etc. that we keep to ourselves. While some of this hidden information is ‘sensitive’ and is best kept private, a lot of it isn’t especially personal and we can achieve better relationships with others by moving it into the “Open Area”, through well-judged ‘disclosure’ i.e. telling people what’s on your mind.

The Unknown Area is a thing that neither the person or those that know them are aware of e.g. a hidden talent – as in an ability or skill that no-one knows they have because the situation where it might be relevant has never arisen, or an experience they might enjoy but haven’t tried yet e.g. a type of food, or maybe a pastime etc. On the ‘dark side’ this area could also include memories of traumatic events that have been repressed. Exploring this area involves embarking on self-discovery through reflection, or experimenting with new experiences.

So what’s next???

Developing self-awareness means accepting those parts of you and your behaviour that usually remain hidden. It also involves being honest about personal limitations and areas of weakness. Self-awareness, however, also means highlighting those situations where you are most effective, assists with decision-making, boosts motivation and is the key to personal growth and leadership development. So consider:


Take this free on-line personality test based on the Big Five Personality Factors (takes about 20 minutes to complete)

Experimenting with an online version of the Johari Window, 360 feedback exercise. A classic and elegant awareness tool first developed in 1955.


“The Self Esteem Workbook” by Glenn R. Schiraldi if you want to explore this area in detail and have access to a number of ‘self development’ tools.


If you think that you or your work team could benefit from our help then take a look at our half-day, in-house Self-Awareness & Teamwork workshop using the SDI


Or maybe our ‘one to one’ executive coaching services, for one of our experts to take you through the Hogan Leadership Questionnaire


Or give us a call on 0844 394 8877 (UK) or email us at and we’ll be happy to discuss how we can
work with you.

Consider Sun Tzu’s famous quote from the Art of War

“If you know others and know yourself, you will not be imperilled in a hundred battles.”