Awareness is the ability to perceive and become conscious of one’s inner world while still taking notice of external surroundings. Leaders who learn to pay attention, observe others, and understand their strengths and weaknesses can influence how they respond to others--and how others respond to them. Neuroscience has shown that awareness emerges when information travels between several different brain areas.1
Non-verbal communication makes up a large portion of our conversations, but many leaders do not have the skills to use this information to identify objections or issues of a client or employee. So much nuance is missed, at work and at home, when people don’t recognise what people are attempting to say (verbally or not).
USING fMRI TO FOLLOW THE NEURAL PATTERNS
The neural basis of awareness has been the target of neuroscience for years. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), scientists hope to map the neural network that helps us form who we truly are.
A recent article highlighted how researchers sought to determine what parts of the brain are active during self-awareness compared to unaware self-processing. The authors reported neural responses during self-aware processing in the prefrontal cortex, medial temporal cortices and the retrosplenial cortex. These results suggest that the neural components of consciousness are not limited to the frontal lobes of the brain.2
THE LACK OF AWARENESS IN LEADERS
It’s difficult for some people to figure out who they are and how they come across to others. Self-awareness is an incredibly important skill for leaders in the Imagination Age. The demands of leadership in today’s working environment can lead to increased job stress, which impacts mental and physical health.
“What I’m very concerned about is how do we bolster our self-awareness as humans, as biological organisms?”
First African American Woman in Space
Acknowledging a lack of awareness is one way to improve leadership skills. Only around 10% of people show a high-level of self-awareness, and in some cases, the higher a person is in an organisation, the lower their self-awareness. It’s almost as if there is an inverse relationship between self-awareness and power.3
When leaders reach the executive level, it’s easy to lose touch with reality and surround yourself with “yes” people who tend to agree with you. There are so many expectations that leaders may not pay attention as closely because of the demands from clients, board members, and colleagues.
It’s no wonder that awareness levels drop when you consider the constant distractions most people face. While technology connects us, it also distracts us and can keep our minds from fully engaging in whatever task is at hand. To stay effective in the ever-changing world economy, leaders should heighten awareness to maximise personal effectiveness and their ability to lead and persuade others.
When an individual is more self-aware, he or she can become part of a self-aware team. According to Dr. Tasha Eurich, self-aware teams should constantly be assessing and then addressing issues. Each person must determine what impact they are having on the team’s performance and if progress is being made to team objectives & goals. Self-aware teams will be more innovative, more efficient, and more rewarding to members. Just as most people are not self-aware, neither are most teams.4
Consider these tips to increase your own awareness, and by extension, improve interactions in your personal and professional spheres.
- Seek feedback from others.
Seeking feedback is a great first step, but you also have to be willing to listen to it. And feedback doesn’t always have to be formal. Listen to those around you outside of meetings, and ask others for opinions on your traits and seek to correct limitations. Elite athletes constantly seek feedback from coaches, but we are often reluctant to seek feedback as leaders.
- Set a positive example.
The “Golden Rule” states that we should treat others as we wish to be treated. By setting a positive example, you are modeling the behaviour you expect to see in the workplace. Begin in small ways by smiling more often, asking how others are doing, and taking the time to listen. Remember, there is more to life than simply making money.
- Be open-minded.
It’s easy for us to fall into a regular routine. We feel more comfortable when we can control little aspects of our life. Stepping outside of the norm can be uncomfortable and challenging. By increasing your mindfulness, you increase your awareness, allowing you to be more agile and reactive as a leader. Your leadership journey should be open to change, so try to imagine a path in the woods, with many potential routes, compared to a paved, set-in-stone road that allows no exploration.
- Observe others’ reactions.
A narrow focus is effective at checking tasks off of a list. But, this task-focused mindset means that leaders may have no idea what is going on behind the scenes. Quality leaders should see the big picture, and understanding the role of the brain can help us learn to look around us. Watching others will help you build trust and improve performance--for you and your employees.
- Discover (or rediscover) yourself.
Life is hectic. There are many demands on your time and energy, and finding time for yourself can seem hopeless. Stress will bring even the strongest leader to their knees eventually when the toll on the body and mind become unbearable. To be the best version of yourself, take the gift of time and get to know yourself.
You may not be the same person you were a decade ago, or even a month ago, and when you increase your awareness about yourself, the positive effects will spill over to all aspects of your life.
You can learn to pay attention to what is going on around you. As we increase our understanding of the intricate neural networks that control awareness, we learn more about how to support optimal brain health and incorporate this knowledge as leaders.
1. Damiano S, Cubeiro JC, de Haas T. Leadership is Upside Down: The i4 Neuroleader Revolution. About my Brain Institute. 2014.
2. Tacikowski P, Berger CC, Ehrsson HH. Dissociating the Neural Basis of Conceptual Self-Awareness from Perceptual Awareness and Unaware Self-Processing. Cerebral Cortex. 2017;7(1): 3768-3781. https://doi.org/10.1093/cercor/bhx004
3.Carmichael SG. Interview with Tasha Eurich. Harvard Business Review. 2018. Available at: https://hbr.org/ideacast/2018/06/how-to-become-more-self-aware.html
4. Eurich T. Insight: The Surprising Truth About How Others See Us, How We See Ourselves, and Why the Answers Matter More Than We Think. Crown Publishing Group. 2017.