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Rex Huppke: Self-awareness at work leads to greater efficiency, better teamwork

Put simply, self-awareness is understanding who we are and how we are similar to or different from others. One key facet is self-knowledge — how we see our various personality traits, values, attitudes, and behaviors.


There is nobody in the working world more qualified than me to talk about self-awareness. I am the best at it — it's not up for discussion — and I will gladly share with you less-self-aware-than-me people the knowledge I have gained from years of being staggeringly aware of myself.

So please pay attention. An opportunity like this doesn't come along often.

Self-awareness — which I'm very good at — is awareness of self. It starts when you look at yourself — perhaps in a mirror or any reflective surface — and then become aware that what you're looking at is … ummm … well, yourself.

Perhaps I'll let Erich Dierdorff, an associate professor of management at DePaul University's Driehaus College of Business, explain it in this excerpt from a recent Harvard Business Review article he co-wrote:

"Put simply, self-awareness is understanding who we are and how we are similar to or different from others. One key facet is self-knowledge — how we see our various personality traits, values, attitudes, and behaviors. But another aspect is being aware of how consistent (or inconsistent) our self-view is compared to an external appraisal — how other people see us or against objective data. The latter is essential for transforming self-knowledge beyond mere personal introspection into accurate self-awareness."

OK, that makes more sense. I am now aware that Dierdorff can define self-awareness better than I can. Whatever. I'm still the best at it.

In his article, the professor examines the curious fact that most of us — though certainly not me — are "notoriously poor judges of our own capabilities." Many of the self-evaluation tests used in the working world make the highly flawed assumption that humans perceive their abilities accurately. And then those tests fail to compare how a person sees himself or herself with how others see that individual.

"Essentially, nearly everybody overestimates themselves, except for the very top end of people who are highly, highly, highly skilled," Dierdorff said in an interview. "But for about 80 percent of us, we overestimate our ability."

It's easy to shrug this off as human nature, but a lack of self-awareness has a significant impact on work efficiency.

Dierdorff and his co-author, Robert Rubin, also an associate professor of management at DePaul, studied an executive development program at a large U.S. company. They found that teams in which a majority of members had lower self-awareness were far less effective than teams with greater numbers of people who were self-aware.

"What was kind of surprising is that this kind of influence, this effect of self awareness, has a higher-level impact than we expected," Dierdorff said. "It not only impacts you, but it impacts your team. It surprised us that it had such a strong impact. It impacted the quality of decision-making, teamwork, coordinating with other people, effectively managing conflict. Basically, we found that if you're in a team in which people are just not accurately self-aware, you have about half the chance of success."

Dierdorff said he sees this tendency to overrate in his students when he puts them through a day-in-the-life-of-a-manager program, a simulation that tests their managerial skills. Before starting, they're asked to self-rate their abilities and about 50 percent of the students put themselves in the top 20 percent, which is, of course, impossible.

Once they find out the truth — that they're not as skilled as they believed — Dierdorff said it takes them a while to process and avoid the reflexive desire to simply "doubt the data."

You can boil this problem down to humility, or a lack thereof. In order to be truly self-aware, we need to be willing to see our faults, to seek input from others and to want to continually improve.

"It really starts with realizing that the minute you think you know everything, you don't know anything," Dierdorff said. "Humility is the currency of change. If you truly want to develop, humility goes a long way. That gets you open."

As with so many workplace behaviors, we have to remind ourselves to be self-aware and not just go through our days on auto-pilot, confident that every move we make is just right. I've written in the past about the need to take a second or two before sending an email or making a comment in a meeting to think, "Is this going to offend anyone or be misconstrued as obnoxious?"

It's that brief interruption that allows us to consider what we're doing before it's done. If you think you absolutely know the best decision to make, take a second and think: "Wait a minute, am I sure about this? Should I run what I'm about to do by someone else?'

Maybe you don't need to, maybe you do. But at least you've given yourself a chance to consider other options.

"You have to seek out information," Dierdorff said. "You have to initiate that feedback-seeking behavior. It's tough sometimes."

Tough, but necessary. If most of us are poor judges of our own abilities, we have to be willing to listen to the judgment of others. That's the only way we get better.

And when I say "we" I mean everyone but me, of course. I don't need to get better. I'm America's most highly qualified workplace self-awareness expert — self-declared.



Rex Huppke writes for the Chicago Tribune. Send him questions by email at or on Twitter @RexWorksHere.


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