Mirror, mirror: The importance of self awareness








I once had a boss whose recollection of an executive team building exercise was summed up with: “I built a boat once.” The comment was filled with sarcasm and disparagement for group team building.

I will resist the temptation to defend this kind of retreat, which I facilitate. They can be great when done well. The idea is to get people out of a stuffy, familiar environment to do something fun while they learn about themselves and each other. These activities can help emphasize the interdependence of people in an era when we often champion individual achievement.

I always assumed my old boss had valid reasons for the bad memories. It could have been the wrong exercise for that group of people. Perhaps it wasn’t organized or facilitated well. Maybe participants weremirror_mirror_copy not given the chance to analyze the learning opportunities or discuss ways to utilize them.

Even so, I wondered how you could spend several days building a boat as part of a team and not discover something valuable about them or about yourself. Even a failed exercise allows you to better understand how you share information, collaborate, collectively set goals, communicate in a group setting, give and receive feedback, manage conflict, and much more. It’s also an opportunity to learn more about colleagues outside the structure and confines of the regular routine.

That my boss could only recount having “built a boat once” after what should have been a worthwhile learning opportunity evidenced a significant lack of self awareness and demonstrated the huge blind spot that others routinely saw.  Too many people in leadership roles have this problem, which is a relic of a time when organizations were hierarchical and senior leaders were expected to always know best. In an era of global competition and a need for organizational agility, self awareness is a vital trait for leaders. It is a core component of “emotional intelligence,” in which psychologist, author and journalist Daniel Goleman hypothesized that non-cognitive skills are as critical to individual success at I.Q.

There are ways to improve your own self awareness, which might be a good idea if you expect to cultivate relationships and move up in your organization:

  1. Seek informal feedback from someone who knows you well and who wants you to succeed. Make sure it’s someone you trust to give you a reality check and be candid about your strengths and shortcomings.
  2. Don’t think of yourself as a victim. Everyone has been mistreated in some way, but blaming others for your inability to work productively with others can further damagealready strained relationships and undermine solid ones.
  3. Try something new. Getting outside your comfort zone and learning a new skill or developing a new interest can help you take a fresh look at things you already know how to do.
  4. Don’t always see things too literally or take them too personally. Viewing things in strict terms blinds us to finding deeper meaning.
  5. Volunteer to participate in a 360-degree assessment. Getting anonymous feedback from your boss, colleagues, and subordinates can be enlightening and beneficial.
  6. Work with a coach who can challenge you to look closer at yourself and see yourself as others might.


Robert Naylor is a journalist, consultant, certified coach, facilitator, and speaker who helps people become better leaders, improve workplace performance, and find focus in their careers and life. He is available for on-site training, private coaching, keynote presentations, and commentary. For more information visit naylorcoaching online or contact

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