To help people navigate the profound challenges posed by a global pandemic, a fragile economy, and social unrest, leaders at all levels of organizations in the public and private sectors must be more sensitive than ever to others’ situations and needs. Most breakdowns in workplace interactions are caused not by bad intentions but rather by a lack of leaders’ awareness of the impact of their behaviors on people in their organization, whether it’s a project team, a business unit, or a large corporation. Given these turbulent times, leadership self-awareness is especially important.
But many organizations lack a systematic way to think about options for increasing the self-awareness of their leaders. Is it better to hire a coach or to send your full management team to an experiential learning program? In this article, we offer four basic options and help companies pick the optimal approach for a given situation.
Why self-awareness is elusive. The human tendency to judge ourselves by our intent — not our impact — makes occupants of influential roles blind to how others perceive their behaviors. Social scientists have long documented how such blind spots can thwart productive conversation. We are stuck “in a box” of self-deception (as the Arbinger Institute puts it) and hard-wired for defensive reasoning (as pioneering organizational-learning researcher Chris Argyris found).
Indeed, people naturally view their abilities to be responsible for their successes and external factors to be the cause of their failures. This tendency — known as self-serving bias — protects our egos but inhibits our ability to receive constructive feedback. Exacerbating this problem is the Dunning-Kruger Effect: the tendency of people who lack the ability and knowledge to perform a particular task to overestimate their ability to do it.
If this is how we’re wired, does that mean we have to throw up our hands and give up? No. A range of options exist for leaders to develop greater self-awareness. But should one hire a coach or attend an off-site program that fosters self-discovery through team exercises? The answer depends on a weighing of the tradeoffs between discussion-based and experiential approaches and between individual and team-based training.
One variable concerns the type of learning experience. Whether targeting an individual leader or a team, experiential learning can be used to instigate powerful personal insights in an emotionally engaging experience that brings self-discovery through surprise. Expecting to perform well on a challenge only to discover that one has missed crucial information that was readily available serves as a wakeup call that gets learners’ attention. But experiential learning can be time-consuming and expensive, because it takes place outside the context of “real work.” In contrast, a discussion-based approach, such as receiving real-time candid feedback from an executive coach — again for either an individual or a team — is simpler and more flexible, although it can be less emotionally engaging.
The other major decision is whether an intervention should target a full team or an individual leader. This depends primarily on whether the main goal is to develop the team as a performing unit — such as a leadership or project team — or to help an individual leader. The constraints faced in scheduling a team for leadership development (related to logistics, time, convenience, or cost) may also matter. These two decisions give rise to four options. Each can help new and experienced leaders alike overcome blind spots. Two involve discussion undertaken in the context of actual work, and two are “off-line” sessions designed to provoke insight and self-awareness through novel experiences.
4 Strategies for Improving Self-Awareness
Pick the type of learning experience that is appropriate for the situation and the participants.
|Experience based||Interpersonal skills lab||Team simulation|
|Individual participation||Team participation|
Source: Amy C. Edmondson and Aaron W. Dimmock
1. Participate in a team simulation exercise. Team simulations can range from outdoor ropes courses that give participants a visceral experience of what it feels like to trust each other in a challenging task to indoor multi-round decision-making exercises done in intact teams. For example, Harvard’s Everest Team Decision Making Simulation provides teams with a series of decisions that participants later discover included crucial information that members failed to share. Some exercises requiring team members to work together effectively to deal with life-threatening situations (e.g., the Lost at Sea and NASA’s Survival on the Moon exercises) can help establish constructive discussion, collaboration, and decision-making norms within a new work group or introduce them to the value of synergy. In each case, the goal is to discover in a condensed time frame specific practices to use to help teams function more effectively.
Both of us have experienced the power of personal discovery while working with teams to successfully complete a ropes course. Aaron trained with the U.S. Marine Corps and learned how to best stay calm and provide guidance for other team members when they were stressed while being 15 to 20 feet off the ground — despite the safety nets. Amy studied management teams participating in a ropes course that gained profound insight about what it feels like to problem-solve productively during the unfamiliar challenge. As one participant put it, “If we could be like this back at work, we’d be awesome!”
2. Hire a skilled facilitator for your team. Developing an intact leadership team’s capability for effective processing of tough decisions and difficult conversations can leverage the pioneering work of skilled practitioners, who can help a team develop its capabilities while it carries out its work. The consultant’s role is to diagnose counterproductive dynamics and intervene to get participants to address them in real time. Observations may include how frequently individuals propose a new direction or action, agree with and build on others’ ideas, or provide challenge and dissent. Healthy team conversations present a mix of these actions and, if a conversation goes off the rails, pause to observe and comment on the team’s dynamics. This work is intellectually and emotionally demanding but offers powerful results when taken seriously and carried out in the context of engaging in real work.
3. Get a Coach. Surgeon, writer, and public health innovator Atul Gawande’s TED2017 talk “Want to get great at something? Get a coach” sets the tone for this approach. All of us are vulnerable to being stymied in our attempts to make it on our own. Most crucially, we often don’t recognize the roadblocks we’re putting in our own way. And if we do, we don’t know how to remove them. In this HBR article, Francesca Gino shares how Jamie Woolf, one of Pixar’s two main coaches, helps teammates expand their thinking to uncover their own barrier and address it.
4. Attend an interpersonal skills lab. Jim Detert and Bobby Parmar at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business developed the interpersonal skills lab (ISL) to immerse individuals, paired with actors, in realistic difficult decision-making scenarios and then provide objective feedback through video and physiologic data. Here, participants feel uncomfortable and uncertain, by design, as they go through an experience of leading. Detert finds that the ISL engages students — both young and experienced — in a visceral discovery session. Participants report watching their own videos and confronting their own errors directly as moments of profound surprise. As one participant exclaimed, “I watched my video for the first time a few minutes ago. … In the moment, I felt one way and looking at it now, I realize how wrong I was.” Participants are deliberately stressed and then coached; the speed of discovery and opportunity to experiment with new approaches in real time promotes self-awareness and skill development.
By weighing the tradeoffs between discussion-based and experiential programs and between individual and team-based training, managers can choose the optimal approach for themselves or their leadership teams. By shrinking their leaders’ blind spots, companies will increase their ability to thrive in an uncertain, interdependent world.