On Self-Awareness in the Workplace
What is self-awareness?
For the person who possesses a glittering CV and a dazzling array of qualifications, who enjoys an enviably high salary and shoulders all its accompanying prestige and responsibility, it can feel impossible to believe a rather universal truth about life: we often don’t quite know who we are.
It isn’t, of course, that we can’t remember the basics of our biographies. We tend to know, very comfortably, what type of food we like to eat or which holiday destinations sound most appealing. Instead, we’re typically unsure about two things in particular: we don’t have a stable sense of what we are worth, and we don’t always have a secure hold on our own values or judgements.
This doesn’t come about because of some fundamental weakness in our characters. In fact, one reason why self-knowledge can be so difficult is that our society is often very good at providing us with ready-made answers. It’s understandable that we gain validation from our careers, and find our sense of self-confidence re-affirmed in promotions and salary raises. The world of work is so good at catering to these moments of ego-satisfaction that it’s not always clear to employees (or employers) why an absence of self-awareness might be a problem. Yet, in working life, this absence can lead to a number of different issues.
Without knowing who we are, in the deepest sense, we tend to have particular trouble coping with either denigration or adulation. If others decide that we have done a bad job, there will be nothing to prevent us from swallowing their verdicts in their entirety, however wrong-headed or unkind they may be. We can easily become helpless before the court of public opinion – which can knock our ability to take initiative – or we might agree to take on roles and responsibilities that we struggle with and come to regret.
“At work, it’s very common to focus on what other people think. What other people expect from us,” says Ruthie Bubis, a faculty member at The School of Life. “We end up expending a lot of energy worrying about these external things, when – with a bit more self-awareness – we would find it easier to focus on what actually is in our control. The things that we get to choose and decisions that we make for ourselves.
“Not only does that help people to worry less, it helps us to understand what we want, to understand our motivations. Without that understanding, someone might treat their career as more of a tick-box exercise, agreeing to things because they feel they should, without ever being properly engaged at a level of deeper motivation.
“People are often told to say ‘yes’ to things, to be positive. But it’s really important to recognise that saying ‘yes’ in one area, means saying ‘no’ somewhere else. Our time isn’t limitless, and people have to feel in control of things in order to feel happy and motivated. Especially at work.”
Self-awareness isn’t just about feeling self-assured.
It involves a careful interrogation of our own thoughts, one which allows us to fully understand what we believe: about ourselves and the world more generally. By exploring those aspects of our personality that we might otherwise close off for the sake of ‘professionalism’ or ‘duty’, we can bring more of our authentic self to work. In the process, making work less about obligation and more about connecting with those things that really motivate us.
“If it was up to me, every business would allow their employees to go on a course where they try out some acting or other improvising activities,” says Daon Broni, performer and faculty member at The School of Life, “because you learn so much about yourself, and it’s so helpful.
“In situations where you’re encouraged to respond to other people’s ideas and step into the shoes of another person, to ask questions and explore your thoughts, you discover so much about yourself that you might not have realised. You have a chance to put some of your adult, professional self to one side, and engage with your inner child a bit more – connecting with that playful aspect of who you are, which often gets suppressed at work.
“Once you know what’s under the surface, you can bring different parts of yourself to work, you can be more conscious about your behaviour, emphasising different elements of your personality in the right moments.”
Having come to know ourselves like this, we will be a little less hungry for praise, a little less worried by the opposition – and much more original in our thinking. We will have learnt the vital art of both knowing and befriending who we really are. Arriving at a place of self-knowledge allows us to make more conscious choices about how we behave, what opportunities we pursue and how we find fulfilment.
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