How to Move from Self-Awareness to Self-Improvement

  • Category EQ

We know that leaders need self-awareness to be effective. That is, an understanding of their strengths, weaknesses, feelings, thoughts, and values — as well as how they affect the people around them. But that’s only half of the story. Self-awareness is useless without an equally important skill: self-management.

A client of mine, we’ll call him Rick, serves as a case in point. He has been given repeated feedback that he speaks too often and for too long in meetings. He has told me that he wants to improve this behavior and learn how to be a more productive participant in order to help his team make better decisions. After a recent meeting with 15 people where he spoke for 30% of the time, I asked him to evaluate his participation. He replied, “I know I talked too much but I had a lot of points to make.” He then continued to tell me more about his ideas. Rick is very self-aware, but he isn’t as effective as he could be because he doesn’t self-manage.

Self-management is a conscious choice to resist a preference or habit, and instead, demonstrate a more productive behavior. It’s a four-step process:

  1. Be present. Pay attention to what is happening in this moment — not what was said 15 minutes ago or what will happen in your next meeting.
  2. Be self-aware. What are you seeing, hearing, feeling, doing, saying, and considering?
  3. Identify a range of behavioral choices. What do you want to do next? What are the possible consequences of each action? What feedback have you gotten that might inform your choices? What are some alternative choices you can make — even if they’re not what you want to do or what you usually do?
  4. Intentionally choose behaviors that are believed to be the most productive. What behavior will generate the best outcome — even if it’s not the behavior that comes easiest to you?

For Rick, self-management would look like this:

  1. Be present: “I’m focused on this conversation, really listening to everyone’s comments, and paying attention to what is happening.”
  2. Be self-aware: “I notice I’m excited and eager to share my ideas. I want to give an example. I also recognize there are a lot of people in the room who are trying to speak, and I know I have a tendency to speak too often in meetings, which can stop others from participating.”
  3. Identify a range of behavioral choices: “I could explain my ideas, ask a helpful question, invite others to share their ideas, or listen silently.”
  4. Intentionally choose behaviors that are believed to be the most productive: “I’m going to withhold my comments and instead listen to what others are saying. Even though I really want to share my ideas, I’ve been repeatedly told that I talk too much, and don’t give others a chance to contribute. If I listen now, I will finally be giving others that chance.”

What makes self-management so hard goes back to the definition. The most productive behaviors are often not aligned with our habits and our preferences. (If they were, we would not need to manage ourselves.)

Behaving in ways that aren’t aligned with your preferences can make you feel uncomfortable (“I always respond first in a Q&A. I worry others won’t get it right”), unskillful (“I don’t know how to give negative feedback”), and even unpleasant (“I like being direct and get impatient when I have to choose my words carefully”).

Operating in ways that contradict our habits can evoke similar negative reactions. With a habit, our brain creates a shortcut and moves from stimulus to response without thinking, saving both time and effort. But non-habitual behaviors require us to think about a situation, consider choices, make a choice, and then demonstrate the behavior that aligns with that choice. This takes work. The auto-pilot efficiency of habits is what make them so hard to change. It’s easier and more pleasant to default to an old habit than it is to invest the energy in creating a new one.

Despite these barriers, self-management is a learnable skill. This is how you can start:

  1. Decide where you want to self-manage. Pay attention to how you typically operate — what you say and do and what you don’t say and don’t do. Identify instances where your current approach is not working as well as you’d like, and self-management might be useful. For example, maybe, like Rick, you talk too much in meetings.
  2. Notice and reflect on what’s driving your lack of self-management. In those moments where you’re not self-managing but would like to, notice how you feel, what you want, and how you are interpreting what’s going on around you. What is driving your actions? Is it lack of awareness in the moment, wanting to look good, lack of skills, insecurity, or something else? If you talk too much in meetings, for example, consider why you do that. Maybe you like your own ideas better than others, or it never occurred to you to talk less. Those of us who have a bias for action may be tempted to skip this step of reflection and move straight to planning and practicing — but don’t. Understanding why we make the choices we make is crucial to changing those choices.
  3. Consider your choices and your reactions to those choices. Instead of your default behaviors, if you were self-managing, what else could you do? What is your reaction to those options? Notice how your preferences and habits show up here, and ask yourself what you are trying to avoid when you default to those habits and preferences. Sticking with the example of talking too much in meetings, one option you might consider is waiting for others to speak before offering your perspective. Now, consider your reaction to that option. Are you afraid someone else will make your point and you won’t’ get credit for it, or that others won’t have ideas that are as relevant as yours and a bad decision will be made
  4. Make a plan. Now that you know what you want to change, better understand what’s driving you, and have identified some options, think of concrete steps you can take. If you talk too much, your plan might include deciding how many times you will speak in a meeting and for how long, or in which meetings you will only listen and not speak.
  5.  Practice. Old habits are hard-wired into our brains. To change them, we need to create new neural pathways (new habits), and this requires practice. If we stay with the example of talking too much in meetings, practice might look like counting your comments and stopping when you hit your maximum — even if you have just one more very important thing to say. Do this repeatedly until you are consistently able to self-manage that behavior. At the same time, explore your reactions to your practice. What can you learn from what you’re doing, and from how you’re reacting, that can inform your continued practice?
  6. Repeat the process. Go back to step two and observe your efforts, reflect on your choices, revise the plan, and practice some more. In each successive iteration, you’ll learn a bit more about how you’re operating, what’s driving your behavior, and how you can improve it.

It’s natural to behave in ways that feel good and familiar — to not self-manage — and yet, if we did this all the time, we’d never get better at anything. To become as effective as possible, leaders need to move beyond self-awareness to self-management. Start by recognizing your current actions, considering alternative options, and then putting in the hard work required to resist what may be most familiar or comfortable. Instead, commit to effectively executing what is most productive.

Jennifer Porter is the Managing Partner of The Boda Group, a leadership and team development firm. She is a graduate of Bates College and the Stanford Graduate School of Business, an experienced operations executive, and an executive and team coach.


Emotional Intelligence Has 12 Elements. Which Do You Need to Work On?

  • Category EQ

Esther is a well-liked manager of a small team. Kind and respectful, she is sensitive to the needs of others. She is a problem solver; she tends to see setbacks as opportunities. She’s always engaged and is a source of calm to her colleagues. Her manager feels lucky to have such an easy direct report to work with and often compliments Esther on her high levels of emotional intelligence, or EI. And Esther indeed counts EI as one of her strengths; she’s grateful for at least one thing she doesn’t have to work on as part of her leadership development. It’s strange, though — even with her positive outlook, Esther is starting to feel stuck in her career. She just hasn’t been able to demonstrate the kind of performance her company is looking for. So much for emotional intelligence, she’s starting to think.

The trap that has ensnared Esther and her manager is a common one: They are defining emotional intelligence much too narrowly. Because they’re focusing only on Esther’s sociability, sensitivity, and likability, they’re missing critical elements of emotional intelligence that could make her a stronger, more effective leader. A recent HBR article highlights the skills that a kind, positive manager like Esther might lack: the ability to deliver difficult feedback to employees, the courage to ruffle feathers and drive change, the creativity to think outside the box. But these gaps aren’t a result of Esther’s emotional intelligence; they’re simply evidence that her EI skills are uneven. In the model of EI and leadership excellence that we have developed over 30 years of studying the strengths of outstanding leaders, we’ve found that having a well-balanced array of specific EI capabilities actually prepares a leader for exactly these kinds of tough challenges.

There are many models of emotional intelligence, each with its own set of abilities; they are often lumped together as “EQ” in the popular vernacular. We prefer “EI,” which we define as comprising four domains: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management. Nested within each domain are twelve EI competencies, learned and learnable capabilities that allow outstanding performance at work or as a leader (see the image below). These include areas in which Esther is clearly strong: empathy, positive outlook, and self-control. But they also include crucial abilities such as achievement, influence, conflict management, teamwork and inspirational leadership. These skills require just as much engagement with emotions as the first set, and should be just as much a part of any aspiring leader’s development priorities.


For example, if Esther had strength in conflict management, she would be skilled in giving people unpleasant feedback. And if she were more inclined to influence, she would want to provide that difficult feedback as a way to lead her direct reports and help them grow. Say, for example, that Esther has a peer who is overbearing and abrasive. Rather than smoothing over every interaction, with a broader balance of EI skills she could bring up the issue to her colleague directly, drawing on emotional self-control to keep her own reactivity at bay while telling him what, specifically, does not work in his style. Bringing simmering issues to the surface goes to the core of conflict management. Esther could also draw on influence strategy to explain to her colleague that she wants to see him succeed, and that if he monitored how his style impacted those around him he would understand how a change would help everyone.

Similarly, if Esther had developed her inspirational leadership competence, she would be more successful at driving change. A leader with this strength can articulate a vision or mission that resonates emotionally with both themselves and those they lead, which is a key ingredient in marshaling the motivation essential for going in a new direction. Indeed, several studies have found a strong association between EI, driving change, and visionary leadership.

In order to excel, leaders need to develop a balance of strengths across the suite of EI competencies. When they do that, excellent business results follow.

How can you tell where your EI needs improvement — especially if you feel that it’s strong in some areas?

Simply reviewing the 12 competencies in your mind can give you a sense of where you might need some development. There are a number of formal models of EI, and many of them come with their own assessment tools. When choosing a tool to use, consider how well it predicts leadership outcomes. Some assess how you see yourself; these correlate highly with personality tests, which also tap into a person’s “self-schema.” Others, like that of Yale University president Peter Salovey and his colleagues, define EI as an ability; their test, the MSCEIT (a commercially available product), correlates more highly with IQ than any other EI test.

We recommend comprehensive 360-degree assessments, which collect both self-ratings and the views of others who know you well. This external feedback is particularly helpful for evaluating all areas of EI, including self-awareness (how would you know that you are not self-aware?). You can get a rough gauge of where your strengths and weaknesses lie by asking those who work with you to give you feedback. The more people you ask, the better a picture you get.

Formal 360-degree assessments, which incorporate systematic, anonymous observations of your behavior by people who work with you, have been found to not correlate well with IQ or personality, but they are the best predictors of a leader’s effectiveness, actual business performance, engagement, and job (and life) satisfaction. Into this category fall our own model and the Emotional and Social Competency Inventory, or ESCI 360, a commercially available assessment we developed with Korn Ferry Hay Group to gauge the 12 EI competencies, which rely on how others rate observable behaviors in evaluating a leader. The larger the gap between a leader’s self-ratings and how others see them, research finds, the fewer EI strengths the leader actually shows, and the poorer the business results.

These assessments are critical to a full evaluation of your EI, but even understanding that these 12 competencies are all a part of your emotional intelligence is an important first step in addressing areas where your EI is at its weakest. Coaching is the most effective method for improving in areas of EI deficit. Having expert support during your ups and downs as you practice operating in a new way is invaluable.

Even people with many apparent leadership strengths can stand to better understand those areas of EI where we have room to grow. Don’t shortchange your development as a leader by assuming that EI is all about being sweet and chipper, or that your EI is perfect if you are — or, even worse, assume that EI can’t help you excel in your career.

Daniel Goleman is Co-Director of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations at Rutgers University, co-author of Primal Leadership: Leading with Emotional Intelligence, and author of The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights and Leadership: Selected Writings. His latest book is A Force For Good: The Dalai Lama’s Vision for Our World.

Richard E. Boyatzis is a Professor in the Departments of Organizational Behavior, Psychology, and Cognitive Science at the Weatherhead School of Management and Distinguished University Professor at Case Western Reserve University.