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How to develop self awareness in the workplace

For over 10 years I’ve been working with Fortune 500 companies to develop self-awareness in the workplace. I’ve used my Suited Monk model for this process.

The idea is very simple, most employees focus on their Suit or external self (success, job title, career development,…) and forget or don’t think about nurturing their Monk or internal self (self-awareness, purpose at work, intuition, values, happiness). As a result, many employees are successful externally but they are not very self-aware and don’t have a sense of ‘’who they are’’ internally. The problem here is that they lack self-awareness

This became very clear when in 2014 I had a meeting with the HR VP of one of the largest chemical companies in the world. She said that their top talents are very smart, studied at the top business schools, and have great career development opportunities, but they are not happy. Basically, they are very successful in their ‘’Suit’’ but they don’t know their ”Monk”. I asked her ‘’they don’t know themselves very much do they’’, she said ‘’no’’. It was very obvious they lacked self-awareness. Somewhere in their work environment, they were not operating from within, they were not living and leading true to themselves.

Often times I get asked by the HR department to develop self-awareness in a one-day or two-day workshop. At that moment I tell them that you can change a belief in a one-day or two-day workshop or change attitude but awareness is like ‘’growing up’’. Awareness is not a quick fix, and awareness happens one step at a time. Whereas some skills can be mastered depending on the effort you put in, awareness is a process and that process takes time. In a moment I will share my recommendations on how you can develop self-awareness in the workplace.

What is awareness?

Awareness happens when you become an observer. Often times you are thinking but you are not aware that you are thinking. The thoughts in your head happen randomly. However when you realize you are thinking you observe your thoughts. At that moment awareness happens. This can happen in the workplace and this can happen in daily life. Awareness allows you to see and understand things that you didn’t see before or forgot. For example, a new idea, or you forgot to call your client and you suddenly remember to make the call.

What is self-awareness?

Self-awareness is the ability to know yourself beyond your thoughts, knowledge, performance, skills, beliefs, and attitude. Self-awareness is knowing yourself on a deeper emotional and internal level. Just awareness can be external, self-awareness is always internal. Self-awareness helps you understand what is important for yourself, and your values, realize why you are emotional, being self-aware about what gives meaning to your life and work.

For example, when you receive feedback from your boss you may receive new awareness about areas for improvement. When you have a new idea or when you learn new insights about yourself.

Why does self-awareness matter?

Let’s take the example of values. Values are personal and individual. Imagine one of your values is freedom or learning. If you are in a job that has no flexible working hours or you are in a job that is very routine and you are not learning many new skills you will not be happy. The reason why managers and leaders are sometimes not happy is that somewhere they are not making decisions true to themselves. Often they compromise on their values based on the expectations of others.

How to develop self-awareness in the workplace?

Here are 9 strategies that can help you to develop self-awareness in the workplace

  1. The first and most important area to develop self-awareness in the workplace is to ‘’hire self-aware talent’’. In our company, our recruitment team’s main goal to place candidates for companies is to find self-aware talent in the market. The reason is that once a candidate you plan to hire is more self-aware, he/she is more likely to stay in the company long term. The company culture, values, and vision will be more in line with the candidate because he/she knows himself at a deeper level. This means you need to develop your HR’s self-awareness and interpersonal skills so they can hire self-aware talent.
  2. Use assessments to raise awareness about strengths and weaknesses: important here is to be aware that assessments are used to raise awareness not to put your employees into a ‘’box’’ about their leadership style. I see this all too often when someone takes an assessment and they make the result a part of their personality. For example, if delegation is a strength, they often start to delegate more and if empathy is a ‘’weakness’’ they may create a negative belief system and adopt the fact that they may not be empathetic. The goal of an assessment is awareness, not an identification of personality. Assessment can be used as well in the hiring process. A lot of my coaching clients take this quiz to start thinking about their life and life journey. Each question is carefully designed for them to start thinking and raising awareness about how happy they are in life and if their job is in line with their life path. You can take the assessment here, it’s free.
  3. Get a coach: the main reason coaching is so powerful is because good coaches ask good questions. These questions provide space and time for the coachee to think. The space that is created to think for the coachee is necessary to allow self-awareness to happen. That self-awareness creates new insight and potential behavioral changes. Behaviors, mindsets, and attitudes can be changed in as fast as one coaching session which can transform relationships and performance.
  4. Attend workshops that are facilitated instead of just teaching style workshops: most workshops in companies are skills-based such as learning coaching skills, sales skills, and presentation skills. Skills are often developed through learning methodologies. Skills are important but skill does not always lead to higher awareness. Therefore when you choose a teacher, choose someone who facilitates. A facilitator can raise a group dynamic and stimulate discussion that can lead to higher awareness. Often when I work with international leadership teams I facilitate discussion instead of only teaching. The reason is, is because 1st I don’t have all the answers and second if you have 10 leaders in a room, imagine how much they can learn from each other from their own sharing and experience. As an experienced facilitator, you can increase the learning by stimulating them to share and ask thought-provoking questions.
  5. Get a mentor: a mentor typically provides advice and insight. They share their learning from experience. In companies what typically works well is when you run a workshop to have participants in the room choose their mentor/peer buddy amongst other participants in the room. Peers can also mentor each other if the trust is high enough.
  6. Practice mindfulness: some companies have small mindfulness rooms or meditation rooms. These rooms are blocked from all noise and distractions for employees simply to wind down. When you had a difficult meeting or a conflict or you are stressed out, mindfulness can help you reflect on your behavior, your emotions, and how you best respond to a situation. When you practice mindfulness you are not attached to what happened, you start to observe what happened. In that space, awareness happens and this awareness allows your managers and leaders to make better decisions moving forward.
  7. Tea time: I remember back in 2012 in China I was running a Suited Monk workshop for one of the largest chemical manufacturers in the world. Upon asking how they promote trust and collaboration in the organization the HR leader told me they have weekly tea time. In tea time they discuss their family life, their personal struggles, and the difficulties they face. As a result, the engagement and trust in the team are very high because they get to know each other on a deeper level. How does this link to self-awareness? When you hear other people share their experiences you start reflecting on your own life and how it applies to you. By hearing stories and solutions to the problems you are likely to make changes in your own life. This happens because during those tea-time discussions you raise awareness about where you can improve in your life, your relationships, and your work. The added benefit is trust and higher engagement in the company.
  8. Get experience: this one is my personal favorite. From my own experience as a leader, then an entrepreneur in China for 10 years I can say that experience brings the most awareness. Experience is a powerful way that will tell you what is working and what is not working. That awareness is needed in order to progress in your life and career. For example, a manager may think he/she is not capable of leading a team because of a lack of experience or knowledge or any other reason. But it’s only through experience that you gain awareness of whether leading people or leading a new project suits you. For this reason, job rotation is very powerful because you get exposed to different skills and different processes which then in turn helps you to get to know yourself on a deeper level. Gain as much experience as you can, the awareness you gain from this is priceless for your life and career.
  9. Be an observer of yourself: being an observer requires personal responsibility and accountability. Being an observer means you don’t judge situations at work, you simply observe them. When you observe a situation as it is, you can look at the same situation from different angles. When you change your angle of looking at a situation you gain new awareness of the right decision to make.

Here’s a practical case of how self-awareness in the workplace can help your managers and organization.

In 2013 I was working with Katie, she was one of the key talents for an international company. Originally a Key Account manager in headquarter office, she had many of the characteristics typical of the functional professional.

  1. She was intelligent, fast-thinking, with a quick numerical analytical skill
  2. Sharp negotiation skills
  3. She was aggressive, ambitious, speedy, and always aiming to achieve high.
  4. She was proud of the characteristics which made her succeed in handling several strategic key accounts, even if it meant putting people down.

Katie was intolerant of people who thought and act more slowly than herself. She was also intolerant to imperfect execution. Katie was also used to making decisions based on detailed data. She could not be tolerant of uncertainty well either. Katie’s career goal is to be a senior sales leader of a large company. The company also treasures her as key potential talent. As regional field sales experience of all channels is a must for being a senior sales leader, the company decided to transfer Katie from headquarters KA department to the largest sub-region of China as a regional sales leader.

A 6-month coaching program was also introduced to help Katie to go through the transition well by focusing on the below objectives:

  • be more self-aware
  • be readied to complexity
  • embrace diversity
  • build team capability instead of relying on self and assist her

The CEO of the company told me that if Katie was not willing to change her attitude she would be fired from the job (this was not told to Katie). Her performance was excellent, however, the team morale was very low, and there was a high turnover rate and little engagement. She was doing more damage to the team and the company despite her personal performance.

When I started coaching her, her self-awareness was very low. Luckily because I was an outsider she was willing to be open to listening and exploring areas for growth. She transparently shared her values, beliefs, strengths and disadvantages, and even her fears. After 6 months, Katie’s change was witnessed by the whole company.

  1. She managed out low performers smoothly without interfering with the team’s morale
  2. She won her team members’ admiration—many of them hold doubts about her before.
  3. The turnover rate in the 1st half of 2013 was 3.8%.
  4. Her business result was brilliant. As the top 1 sales sub-region in China, her team exceeded 6% of the sales target in the 1st half of 2013. All KPIs were achieved excellently.

The only reason why she was able to achieve these results is that her self-awareness was raised. She had to realize how her communication style and approach were impacting the team. How her own ambition was leading her towards a burnout if she couldn’t let go of things, delegate well and reduce her stress.

Over the years I came to realize that self-awareness is not only important at work, it is also important in life. Work and life should be integrated but for many these are separate. As a result, people feel stressed out and experience negative emotions.

Every day, you go out in the world wearing your suit — whether it’s a custom-designed 3-piece Armani or a work shirt and jeans. Your suit isn’t so much about the clothes themselves, but the image you present to the outside world. Your suit is the version of you that everyone sees. Your level of success, money, and career progress.

Your monk has nothing to do with your religion. Rather, “monk” is the term that represents the inner you. Your passions, your values, and internal happiness. The things that light you up and bring joy into your life. Your monk is often the version of you that no one sees — sometimes, not even you.

A suited monk is a person who has managed to bring these two discrete personalities into one whole person. This process happens by enhancing self-awareness of managers and leaders in companies. The result is that they will feel more balanced within, have less stress, and be able to give ownership to others.

Self-awareness is not a quick fix it is a process. But it is important if you want to keep your people engaged, motivated, and lead beyond their egos.

In this 2-minute free quiz you will find the answers you need to lead from within and move forward in life to close the Suit – Monk Gap towards more happiness and purpose at work. Free Quiz ”How Happy Are You”. You will receive a report to help you identify how big is the GAP between your internal and external self today and provide strategies to close the GAP. Take your Free Quiz here 

Raf Adams has been helping people align their internal and external self and find their path in work and life. He has been living in China for 12 years, doing workshops and seminars, and is the author of The Suited Monk and Suited Monk Leadership.

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