What Self Awareness Really Is (and How to Develop It)
Self awareness may be the new key to both workplace success and mental health. But what exactly is this phenomenon? Researchers have described self-awareness as the ability to focus one’s attention on themselves and to, in turn, self-evaluate (Silvia & O'Brien, 2004). While in the past, self awareness has gained a negative reputation due to connotations with depression and dysfunction (Silvia & O'Brien, 2004), new research has begun to shine light onto the abundant benefits self awareness can have especially in the workplace.
Getting down to the fundamentals of self awareness is not as straightforward as you may think. Various definitions have been debated throughout the last century. Some scientists have said that self awareness is a version of self-consciousness. Others call self awareness the comparison of how we see ourselves versus how others see us. Still others think self awareness is the ability to monitor our own inner feelings (Duval & Wicklund, 1973). It is crucial to bridge together these past definitions in order to comprehensively understand the benefits of self awareness in the workplace.
As defined by Dr. Tasha Eurich, two overarching categories of self awareness have emerged from this past research: internal and external self awareness (Eurich, 2018).
Internal self awareness can be described as how we perceive ourselves in relation to our values, emotions, strengths, weaknesses, and environment (Eurich, 2018). According to Harvard Business Review, internal self awareness has a positive association with work and relationship satisfaction, perceived levels of self control, creativity, and general happiness (Eurich, 2018). Taking the time to understand yourself can therefore be a proven form of self care.
A study assessing this dubbed “internal self awareness” examined the relationship between self awareness and goal setting on performance. Student participants were put into four groups based on their level of self awareness and goal setting activities. They were then asked to complete an unfamiliar decision making task.
Participants with high levels of self awareness that were asked to meet well-defined and clear goals performed best on their tasks. In fact, those with high levels of self awareness on average scored approximately 3 points higher than those with low levels when faced with these unfamiliar tasks (Ridley, Schutz, Glanz & Weinstein, 1992). These findings suggest a strong relationship between self awareness, self confidence, and creativity (Ridley, Schutz, Glanz & Weinstein, 1992).
The latter of the two terms, external self awareness, expresses the ways in which others view us in relation to our values, emotions, strengths, weaknesses, and environment (Eurich, 2018). External self awareness may be represented in a leader who sees themselves the same way in which their employees do.
Those skilled in external self awareness are also more likely to demonstrate higher levels of empathy, allowing them to better relate to others (Eurich, 2018). The benefits of external self awareness are evident especially in the workplace. Job satisfaction, higher-performing employees, and greater productivity are only a few of the many benefits of self awareness.
In a study evaluating self and subordinate ratings of Naval officers, a random sample of 155 U.S Naval Officers were asked to self evaluate their leadership performances (Bass & Yammarino, 1991). The study found that officers with the highest ratings from their subordinates were less likely to inflate their own personal ratings. Meanwhile, less successful leaders inflated their self ratings.
In other words, being self aware helps you to not only better rate and understand your own leadership abilities, but these more accurate understandings transfer to the ways in which your employees view you. If you understand your own strengths and weaknesses, you are more likely to be a better leader with more satisfied workers. These results help prove the ways in which external self awareness specifically produces more effective leadership as well as more satisfied workers.
Just because you may perceive yourself as skilled in one type of self awareness does not necessarily mean those skills transfer to both types. In fact, according to Eurich, “our research has found virtually no relationship between [the two types of self awareness]” (Eurich, 2018). Their research notes that leaderss should not value one type of self awareness over another.
In a separate study on whether or not increased self awareness actually enhances managerial performance, researchers concluded not all forms of self awareness are equivalent and thus affect performance differently as well (Fletcher & Bailey, 2003).
Being able to both internally understand yourself and gain comprehensive feedback on how others perceive you are exceptional skills to own in any environment. Remember, those who are truly self aware will know the importance of balancing the two.
Self awareness may be harder to grasp as one gains power as a leader. Typically, the more power one has, the greater the chances are that they will soon overestimate their skills.
In a study of over 3,600 industry leaders, high-level leaders overvalued their abilities in comparison to how others perceived them significantly more than their lower-level counterparts (Sala, 2003). In 19 out of the 20 measures the researchers utilized, including empathy, leadership performance, emotional awareness, trustworthiness, accurate self assessment, and more, this pattern was present (Sala, 2003).
In order to combat this, one must be aware of the potential consequences of power and how it can change your self awareness. Dr.Tasha Eurich suggests actively seeking feedback and learning to love constructive criticism as long as it comes from a place of good intent (Eurich, 2018).
The topic of constructive feedback segways into the role of introspection when learning to cultivate self awareness. Most people may actually be practicing introspection in a way that hinders their self awareness (Eurich, 2018). It is ineffective to ask ourselves the motives and reasoning behind our actions since research shows we do not have access to the majority of our subconscious thoughts and feelings (Nisbett & Wilson, 1977).
Rather than asking these “why” questions, we should instead be focusing on increasing productive self insight with "what" questions. This avoids unrewarding ruminations. Ask yourself what are the steps you need to take in order to do better, instead of asking yourself why you performed so badly. Harvard Business Review also suggests other examples of more effective introspective prompts including:
“What are the situations that make me feel terrible, and what do they have in common?” Instead of “Why do I feel so terrible?”
“What are the steps I need to take in the future to do a better job?” Instead of “Why did you say this about me?”
“What do I need to do to move forward in a way that minimizes the impact to our customers and employees?” Instead of “Why wasn’t I able to turn things around?”
Remember, asking too many “why” questions can negatively result in explanations centering around fears of weaknesses and insecurities. “What” questions, on the other hand, will cultivate thoughtful answers that will help you stay empowered, objective, and focused on your future! (Eurich, 2018)
While we have previously explored the power of reflection at work, many recent studies have also begun to stress the importance of implementing self awareness training in the workplace. In one dealing with organizational performance and self awareness within the Nigerian banking industry, self awareness was found to have fostered more profitable businesses being positively correlated with net profit and return on investment (Okpara, Atuma & Agwu, 2025). The study concluded with a recommendation for companies to begin training both managers and employees in self awareness strategies in order to continue this positive growth.
Another study also came to this same conclusion as it investigated whether or not the benefits of self awareness including positive life outcomes and general well-being held true in the workplace. Participants included full-time employees who answered questionnaires on “dispositional self awareness (reflection and rumination) and job well-being (satisfaction, enthusiasm and contentment)” three times over the course of six weeks (Sutton, Williams & Allinson, 2015). Participants also took part in training interventions which began with each participant explaining their own understanding of self awareness and mindfulness. They later participated in group discussions in which they discussed the amount they engaged in self-awareness and mindfulness practices such as therapy and journaling and the effects these practices had.
Results showed self awareness to have a positive association with job-related well being. According to the researchers, the variables had correlations above 0.5, thus indicating a strong relationship between them (Sutton, Williams & Allinson, 2015).
Participants also noted a newfound sense of appreciation for diversity as well as greater confidence and communication. Overall, the study finalized its discoveries with a claim that self awareness training should be implemented in order to experience work collaboration and conflict resolution skills. Self awareness training can have far reaching impacts on culture, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), mental health and well-being, and performance.
Work is stressful enough, but navigating it in relation to your mental health can be a daunting task in it of itself. The LIFE intelligence app is a science-backed journey to self awareness. It consists of 9 topics, or "missions," that guide you through deep analysis of your self (mental health, emotional intelligence), career (productivity, goals, decisions), and relationships (communication, conflict, leadership). By prompting you within the app to ask "what" made you feel a certain way, or what contributed to missed goals, or what you want for your future, LIFE enables you to reflect the right way for self-awareness and total self management.
Mission 2.4 deals specifically with developing self awareness after understanding your own unique story. Once you achieve self-understanding, the next step to success is understanding how others see you. Be sure to download the LIFE intelligence app in order to track your own strengths and weaknesses, emotions, tendencies, and everything in-between!
Fletcher, C., & Bailey, C. (2003). Assessing self‐awareness: some issues and methods. Journal of Managerial Psychology.
Sutton, A., Williams, H.M. and Allinson, C.W. (2015), "A longitudinal, mixed method evaluation of self-awareness training in the workplace", European Journal of Training and Development, Vol. 39 No. 7, pp. 610-627.
Silvia, P. J., & O'Brien, M. E. (2004). Self-awareness and constructive functioning: Revisiting “The human dilemma”. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 23(4), 475-489.
Ridley, D., Schutz, P., Glanz, R., & Weinstein, C. (1992). Self-Regulated Learning: The Interactive Influence of Metacognitive Awareness and Goal-Setting. The Journal of Experimental Education, 60(4), 293-306.
Bass, B. M., & Yammarino, F. J. (1991). Congruence of self and others' leadership ratings of naval officers for understanding successful performance. Applied Psychology, 40(4), 437-454.
Okpara, Atuma, and Prof Edwin Agwu. (2015). "Self awareness and organizational performance in the Nigerian banking sector." European Journal of Research and Reflection in Management Sciences 3.1.
Duval, S., & Wicklund, R. A. (1973). Effects of objective self-awareness on attribution of causality. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 9(1), 17-31.
Eurich, T. (2018). What self-awareness really is (and how to cultivate it). Harvard Business Review.
Sala, F. (2003). Executive Blind Spots: Discrepancies Between Self-and Other-Ratings. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 55(4), 222.
Nisbett, R. E., & Wilson, T. D. (1977). Telling more than we can know: verbal reports on mental processes. Psychological review, 84(3), 231.