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3 Ways Leaders Can Boost Their Self-Awareness and Team Relevance

Inspired by your leader? Sadly, only 25% of us are.

Is work getting any better? Not yet. Only 25% of employees who responded to McKinsey’s 2023 The State of Organizations say “they see their leaders as inspirational and fit for purpose.”

With so much organizational change in play – digital transformation, hybrid work contortions, DEI imperatives, sustainability stewardship, generational shifts, etc. – leaders are well, not leading well. Can’t blame them. It’s as challenging as ever to effectively lead others, take care of themselves, stay calm, and carry on through all of it.

Yet McKinsey stresses the need for (and what we’re all craving) “leadership that is self-aware and inspiring.”

New ideas for leadership self-improvement.

Business leaders I’ve supported through high-stakes digital change journeys – focused on tempering negative impacts on their people, processes, and systems – often call me their “therapist.” I don’t have those credentials, but I have suggested ideas to boost self-awareness when their tried-and-true approaches fall flat with their teams. Based on my experience championing change in the heat of business transformation, I’m certain that one thing makes these change journeys successful: When leaders decide to make their business transformation a personal transformation.

Increasing one’s self-awareness is always a choice. For leaders who are open to it, here are three areas I’ve recommended to deepen employee engagement by opening up to become more relatable leaders. And to be relatable, we need to be vulnerable.

1. Deep-scan the self-talk.

This is where it all starts. What talk track runs through our heads, what voices do we listen to, and what stories are ingrained in our psyches that drive our leadership styles? Again, from the McKinsey report, “Leaders may be tempted to stick with the approaches that have worked for them in the past… but the costs of leaders remaining in the familiar zone can be high.”

I get it. Monday mornings can be brutal when weekend system testing goes south and exposes new issues instead of confirming stability. Great leaders will check in with themselves before their first Monday morning meeting. They’ll let the angry, raw script rip through their heads. They’ll suck up the negatives. They’ll be honest about everything they’re hearing. Then, they’ll share a balanced perspective to acknowledge the frustration and inspire a team that may be in the weeds, struggling to remember what the hell they signed up for.

Many of us have checked in with ourselves in these ways. But consider doing it in all four self-talk categories identified by Thomas Breithaupt, Ph.D., a psych professor and self-talk researcher at Middle Tennessee State University:

  • Self-criticism: Judging ourselves and our choices.
  • Self-reinforcement: Affirming ourselves and our choices.
  • Self-management: Listening to the voice that helps us get things done.
  • Social assessment: Rehearsing what we will say or rehashing our conversations.

Could be a new routine to run through before big meetings or town halls with your teams. Give it a try. Inspiring leaders do have the power to change conversations for the better. It starts with changing the ones in their heads first.

2. Re-connect with today’s employee experience.

How well do you know critical touchpoints of today’s employee experience? We’re all familiar with traditional hire-to-retire phases, but like everything else about work, the employee experience is being rewritten, too.

Study Huler’s Employee Experience Journey Map template, for example. It defines new distinctions you can piggyback on to generate opportunities for your own Leadership Experience Map. Some ideas:

  • Recruitment Phase: Add your quote in the actual Job Description posting. (Applicants will get an early feel for your leadership style rarely included in JDs.)
  • Onboarding Phase: Send a personal welcome video to a new team member on the weekend before they start on Monday. (Nobody does that.) But everyone does remember their first day or their first week of work. Since onboarding is a make-or-break phase that colors the employee experience for years to come, it’s a prime spot to create simple, positive first impressions.
  • Development Phase: Impactful touchpoint additions could include refreshed LMS content about Leadership learning, like the thought-provoking, self-awareness topics we’re discussing here, that maybe (stay with me!) you offer to deliver. (We’re all hungry for it, especially for effective best practices from outside of our organizations.)
  • Evaluation Phase: We use Employee NPS surveys to pulse-check our general culture or company vibe. How about a Leader NPS straight-up asking team members to answer one simple question: “Would you recommend me as a Manager to your friends?” (We should care about the answer! We also need to remove the fear factor in submitting those answers, which builds trust over time.)

Be honest. Are your protector parts springing into action right now? Completely natural. But that can signal what you’re resisting and identify key areas where transforming your leadership style will deliver the best bang for the buck. We all know the biggest breakthroughs occur when we tackle things we want to avoid the most.

3. Take teeny-tiny steps.

This stuff can get overwhelming, which can be a gateway emotion to avoidance.

Try a new approach. Think back to your New Year’s resolutions. Sticking with some? Bailed on a bunch? Translating new leadership self-awareness into actionable behaviors can be like that. It’s challenging work. Most people fail at it. Which is why I like how NY Times columnist Melissa Kirsch suggests we should reframe our resolutions—not as things we have to give up, but as “self-compassionate commitments” or “teeny-tiny resolutions” that are not “large, looming, and self-punishing.”

Ready to shift your leadership style? Go easy at first. Get rolling with simple, achievable changes such as these:

  • Schedule “Talk to me!” time: Many leaders block time on their calendars. How about scheduling time in your calendars that says, “Talk to me!” Too weird? For some. But you’re also trying to get people’s attention. Assuming event details on your calendar are already set to a public view, model accessibility and give your team ad hoc options to connect with you when needed.
  • Don’t go it alone: The real job of leaders is to model, inspire, and develop people. The more you’re seen bringing in other voices, ideas, and actionable tactics, the more you’ll naturally invite others onto a single, collective change journey everyone owns. That’s a very different space from everyone feeling like they and others live in separate worlds.
  • “Resolve to always be resolving:” Kirsch suggests this discovery-mindset to keep our New Year’s resolutions alive. When working on increasing leadership self-awareness, maybe you rephrase that to read, “resolve to always be transforming.” We mimic our managers so your team will notice, respect, and mirror your effort.

None of us have all the answers. Unfortunately, we were trained to think otherwise, and in fact, many of us became “leaders” because big ideas were somehow exclusively credited to us. No wonder we still think we can change everything on our own. It’ll never happen, and it’s way too much work. Involve others to reduce personal pressure and increase team contributions. Co-created magic will evolve from there.

Choose willful awareness over willful ignorance.

Some leaders will read this article and brush it off as work above and beyond their actual job requirements. You can hear them now: “I’m too busy as it is.” “HR can deal with it.” “My team knows my style and what to expect from me.” All signs of being fearful of change and moving toward self-isolation.

Many of us are not wired for introspective, self-improvement work. Instead, we choose “willful ignorance.” Research published by the American Psychological Association reports that “40% of individuals opt to remain ignorant about how their decisions impact others, often leveraging this unawareness to act more selfishly.”

But business transformation is always an opportunity for personal transformation. McKinsey’s 2023 The State of Organizations emphasizes that “Leading yourself, leading others, leading at scale” are the new strategies for inspired leadership that will set you apart and engage your team like never before. Put yourself out there in new ways today. Your teams will flourish because of it.

Ready to accelerate the effectiveness of your leadership self-awareness journey, elevated by creative change management and communications for your business transformation? Let’s talk. Pivot Strategies helps leaders of Fortune 500 companies do it every day. Let us show you how we can do it for you.

About the Author

John NielsonClient Lead

“Think like a marketer. Act like a change agent.” It’s John’s mantra when working to accelerate the digital change journeys of Fortune 500 organizations for the past 20 years. Expect his deep expertise in developing and deploying organizational change-management strategy & readiness activities, building and writing communication campaigns, and managing sponsors, teams & projects to educate, align, and engage all stakeholders in critical business initiatives. John also brings a fresh energy that inspires everyone to have a little fun along the way and make change stick. Proven. Creative. Gritty. Count on John for digital change leadership that sparks business transformation.

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