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Confidence. Commitment. Passion. Integrity. All of these are characteristics of an admirable leader. But there is one trait that may overshadow them all: self-awareness. Self-aware leaders have the ability to monitor their own emotions and reactions. Leaders that are highly attuned to their behaviors (and how others perceive those behaviors) can make a positive impact in their organization by setting the tone for maturity, moderation, and civility that others will aim to replicate.

We promote self-awareness at Birkman—it's critical for everyone's personal development, not just leaders. However, self-awareness is difficult to practice, especially when under stress.

There are three elements to self-awareness:

  • Knowing your own behavior—good and bad
  • Leveraging your good behavior
  • Curbing the bad behavior

It seems simple, but even those of us immersed in a company culture that emphasizes the importance of self-awareness can struggle. Ultimately, in those moments when you're frustrated in the workplace, it's hard to step back, take a deep breath, and assess how you can best handle a situation.

Below are some techniques that can be used to help you enhance your own self-awareness and, in turn, improve your overall leadership abilities.  

Make Friends with Your Strengths and Weaknesses

Whether you discover them through a personality assessment or by carefully observing your own behaviors, learning your strengths and weaknesses is the essential first step toward self-aware actions. Personality assessments (like Birkman) are particularly helpful because they give data points to your personality—so you can understand your behavior in a social context and see how you compare to your peers. They're also non-judgmental, so you won't feel belittled by the results. 

The process of self-discovery is both validating and challenging. You'll recognize the personality traits that have been most successful for you and landed you in the leadership position you have today—but you'll also have to acknowledge the ways you act under stress and what's held you back.

For me, I've realized that I have an authoritative streak. I'm comfortable speaking my mind with superiors and clearly directing my team, and these are traits that have helped me succeed in my management role. The challenge is, I also expect the same behavior from others, so I may not give enough opportunities for quieter members of my team to challenge my leadership and present better ideas.

You should always work on strengthening your weaknesses, but the first step is simply acknowledging they exist. 

Discover How Others Perceive You

We all have biases, especially about ourselves, so the more external feedback you can get about your own behavior, the better.  Knowing how people perceive you is helpful for building self-awareness—and one of the best ways to find out is to simply ask. 

A 360° feedback survey from your peers, bosses, and team can yield insights from others about your behavior. Or, take a less formalized approach by instilling an environment of "Radical Candor" (seriously, check this book out—it's a fantastic read) in your workplace.

Want to build a culture of trust and feedback within your team? Check out Top Strategies for Building Trust Within Teams

Approach any negative feedback with curiosity, not defensiveness. No person is perfect, and we all have room to improve. If you're puzzled by any comments you receive, spend time examining it instead of rejecting it. Ask for your coworkers to elaborate and share examples of your past behavior. Then, keep an eye out for that behavior in the future.

Want to handle criticism with an open mind? Check out How to Constructively Deal with Criticism in the Workplace

If you realize there are large gaps between what you thought about yourself and the feedback you're receiving, it's worth investigating. A consulting firm or coach can help you explore how these differences may exist between your own perceptions and those of others.  

I received some criticism a few months ago from my boss, and although I was initially surprised by it, I found it extremely helpful in my development as a leader. I had two immediate reactions when I first heard it: 1) I asked two trusted colleagues to validate the criticism to eliminate any question of bias and 2) I asked my boss to alert me in private if she's sees the behavior surface again. Since then, I've begun to recognize the behavior myself, learn what triggers it, and develop some tactics for minimizing it. It's an ongoing process, but it never would've started if I hadn't gotten feedback.

Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness can be summed up as being acutely aware of the moment—paying attention to the world around you and your place in it. You can practice mindfulness at home in a quiet room or in the middle of a busy office. All you need to do is stop, take a mental step back, and really notice what’s going on.

What thoughts are racing through your brain? What are you seeing, hearing, or feeling? What emotions are you experiencing? Are you breathing slowly or rapidly? Are you relaxed or tense? Your body's physical state can indicate if you are mentally stressed—which is the most important time to be monitoring your behavior and reactions.

Being mindful in times of stress isn't easy, but if you exercise mindfulness regularly, you'll be more equipped when crisis strikes. You can practice mindfulness at various times throughout the day, in a variety of situations. Think of them as self-awareness mini-sessions, where your only goal is to observe and experience what’s going on within and around you.

We've started this new practice within our team to spend 5 minutes daily meditating as a group. We use the Headspace app, and we've found meditation calming after a morning commute as well as helpful for practicing patience and focus. Find what works for you, and strive to make a habit out of being mindful.

Look for the Learning Moments

Many situations throughout the typical business day can be ideal learning moments, especially if you're in a leadership role where you're constantly interacting with others. Every interaction you experience can be a learning moment if you take the time to review and assess it.

A good way to do this is to ask yourself questions, such as:

  • How did I make people feel in that meeting?
    • Pay attention to subtle clues such as body posture and facial expressions.
  • How did the attendees perceive me?
    • Ask a trusted coworker for feedback after the meeting.
  • Did I help prompt useful conversation?
    • Think about what you said—and the tone you spoke in.
  • Did I display any behaviors that were particularly beneficial or detrimental to our overall goal?
    • Don't only dwell on your mistakes—also give yourself kudos for your successful approaches.

Reflect on characteristics that you’d like to portray as a leader, such as being supportive, compassionate, motivating, and responsive. Then think about leadership development techniques and behaviors that can help you become that person.

Identify Your Emotional Triggers & Figure Out How to Cope

Even the most effective leaders are still human with their own emotional triggers in the workplace. By "emotional triggers"—I don't necessarily mean that you'll become visibly emotional in response to the stressor. In fact, many people shut down and become less emotional when stressed.

If you know your "Stress Behavior" (criticism you've received from peers or unproductive behaviors cited in your personality assessment), pay attention to when it surfaces. Recognize any patterns of situations that agitate you. By knowing your own behaviors and being mindful of your emotional state, you can build the self-awareness to recognize triggers as you are faced with them. You certainly don’t have to squash your emotions or pretend a trigger does not exist, but you can start to regulate your response to stressful situations. 

For me, I'm very committed to delivering projects on-time with a high quality standard. So, when unexpected requests are asked of my department, I immediately become stressed about bandwidth and concerned about how I can complete it. I usually manifest this stress by becoming obviously resistant to taking on the project (more in how I appear than what I say), which unfortunately makes me appear uncooperative. Because I've identified this trigger, I've realized how I can cope with those situations—taking time before accepting the request, looking at my production calendar, and re-prioritizing projects to make sure I can complete the request on time. If the request is unrealistic, at least I've had some time to cool down before I respond and can give an explanation for why it can't be achieved.

As you start to understand your emotional triggers and stressors in the workplace, exercise mindfulness in those moments and find tactics to reduce stress and act diplomatically—that's the approach of a highly self-aware leader.

With practice and dedication, self-awareness can transform from something you’re striving to attain into something that comes naturally. Use it to better your relationships, performance, and leadership skills in the workplace and at home. Plus, as a leader, if you exhibit self-aware behavior, you'll inspire the same maturity and professionalism from your team. 

Please note, self-awareness isn't about rejecting your feelings or ignoring your gut—it's about understanding yourself better, recognizing your faults, focusing on your behavior in moments of stress, and being thoughtful in how you communicate. Yes, these are soft skills, but as a leader, your job is to communicate with and motivate your team—and these soft skills are essential to your performance. 

 Reaching Further: Birkman is the only personality assessment that measures Needs—your expectations of your environment and what you need from others to feel comfortable and be productive. If your Needs aren't being met, that can trigger stress and unproductive behavior. By learning your Stress Behavior as well as your Needs, you'll have the tools to quickly identify stressful situations and handle them professionally as a leader.

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