Why Self-Awareness Matters


The evidence is overwhelming: successful people are self-aware. While there are contemporary figures among us who we may consider exceptions to this general rule, we can look to one of our country’s most revered presidents and greatest leaders, Abraham Lincoln, for proof.

During the series of famous debates between Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas as they competed for a US Senate seat from Illinois, Douglas once accused Lincoln of being two-faced. Lincoln, referencing his homeliness, responded, “Honestly, if I were two-faced, would I be showing you this one?” Of course, the line got a big laugh from the crowd, but also serves to reflect the power of self-awareness and, in this case, not taking oneself too seriously.

If you’re not convinced by this one historical anecdote, how about some hard data? In a study conducted by Green Peak Partners and Cornell University, 72 senior executives from large private and public companies were interviewed and it was found that a “high self-awareness score was the strongest predictor of overall success.” It’s hard to argue with success.

Most of us would readily agree that self-awareness is good. In fact, the more the better. But have you ever considered why self-awareness matters? The reasons are many, but in this short article I’ll offer three that are of particular importance.

Self-Awareness Leads to Self-Control

The scholarly study of self-awareness can be traced back to the landmark work of Shelley Duval (the psychologist, not the actress) and Robert Wicklund, who found that when people understood their own values and were able to compare those values to their behavior, they could evaluate how they were doing and self-correct. In other words, self-awareness leads to self-control.

Have you ever been in a store and watched a child throw a tantrum? In my experience, the child doesn’t seem worried about the scene he is causing, the discomfort of other shoppers, or the embarrassment of the parent. Since there is no self-control being exhibited, the parent must step in to control the situation. By the way, I’m not judging—just relaying my observations.

Similarly, when adults in the workplace don’t recognize or simply don’t care about the negative impact they have on those around them, the consequences for that individual, the team, and the organization can be devastating. The news of late has been filled with people who failed to correct themselves when they were out of line and this has forced others (i.e., management, HR, boards of directors, law enforcement, courts, etc.) to step in to force correction. Unfortunately, these corrections were too-little-too-late in many cases and serious damage had already been done. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Self-Awareness Improves Collaboration

Your ability to understand your own emotions will help you recognize the emotions of others and work together effectively. Because, like it or not, the workplace can be emotional. Understanding why you feel drained after meetings or why you are triggered into conflict with a particular colleague can allow you to proactively manage your response and stay positively engaged. This skill cannot be understated in a modern workplace defined by collaborative problem-solving.

Self-Awareness Cultivates Compassion

Self-aware people tend to have a broader view of the world and can more readily understand how their own life experiences and views may differ from those of the people around them. This broader perspective allows them to be more compassionate—to themselves and others.

Unless you’re in a helping profession, compassion isn’t a word often used in the workplace; however, I often wonder what our workplaces would be like if we embraced the ideals it represents. Compassion is much more than feeling sorry for someone and perhaps sparing some change. In its most productive form, compassion moves us to authentically connect with others.

When people are authentically connected, they feel understood, heard, accepted, and valued. And I have to believe that a group of people who feel connected will be more committed, more engaged, and more productive.

Self-Awareness Requires Effort

It takes intentional effort, learning and ongoing practice, to increase self-awareness. As research conducted by Harvard psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert found, people operate on autopilot nearly 50 percent of the time. Meaning, a lot of the time, you’re not focused on what’s happening right in front of you or how you respond. Thus, the effort required.

But the benefits of self-awareness are there. As Theodore Roosevelt, a self-aware leader who reached the pinnacle of professional success, said, “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort.”

Self-awareness is worth the effort.

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Dr. Mike Patterson is a principal at Core Strengths and an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Education and Psychology. He is also the co-author of Core Strengths: Results through Relationships training and the highly acclaimed book, Have a Nice Conflict: How to Find Success and Satisfaction in the Most Unlikely Places. Contact him at

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