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Managers who practice self awareness make excellent leaders

The philosopher Jean Paul Sartre famously wrote about the “gooeyness” of human nature. Being human is a messy, complicated, and perplexing experience and thus, leadership - leading ourselves and leading others - is one of the most difficult, rewarding, and if we’re being completely honest, sometimes painfully annoying, jobs. All leaders should invest as much time mastering the soft human mental side of business as they do the hard financial side. The more we know about the tiny firings and misfirings of our brain chemistry, the power of environmental conditions, the inner workings of group dynamics, the nature of deeply rooted psychological defenses and biases, and the function of cognitive processes, the fewer mistakes we will make with our people and the more quickly we will correct the mistakes we do make. The following is some advice at the root of leadership excellence.


Do consistently practice self-awareness

Self-awareness is not an easy thing to commit to keep, especially because it begins with admitting that you are a fallible human. It’s a life-long process that takes a lot of energy and willingness to scrutinize your behaviors. To start this process, it means taking a good, objective look at your own personal and professional strengths and weaknesses, your personal derailers, and understanding what makes you tick and what ticks you off. Your personal perception will be skewed because it’s how you see yourself, not necessarily how others see you, and as humans we are notoriously terrible judges of our own character. Therefore, when choosing to dedicate yourself to self-awareness, it’s always recommended to ask others from different areas of your life (employees, peers, managers, colleagues, significant others, friends, etc.) how they see you (strength and weakness wise). Although this may be difficult, it’s imperative to gain insight into your impact on other people through their eyes. A dedication to self-awareness is not an option when it comes to leadership, it's a leadership imperative.

Do right your wrongs

People who work with or for you will remember your mess-ups way more than they will remember your successes or do goods. So as a leader, you must learn to right your wrongs as quickly as possible. The reason why this happens is we process negative information more thoroughly and more intensely than positive information, e.g. we brood over losing $100 more than we celebrate over winning $100. In a 2011 study by Terese Amabile, negative effects of a setback at work on happiness were more than twice as strong as the positive effect of an event that signaled progress. Even more significant is the fact that the power of a setback to increase frustration and annoyance is over three times as strong as the power of progress to decrease frustration and annoyance. Basically, negative events are significantly more impactful and soul-sucking than positive ones. To make it worse, in a study done by Roy Baumeister, good stuff can make up for bad stuff but it’s a five to one ratio (you need five goods to diminish the impact of one bad). A leader’s mess-ups can stick like superglue to the brains of their employee’s even if he/she is generally a great leader. So always right your wrongs immediately to minimize the impact.

Do make employee engagement a priority

Many of the major research firms have shown an alarming rate of employee disengagement. This is highly concerning because research has consistently shown that disengagement is associated with reduced productivity, performance, workplace safety, retention, loyalty and ultimately the bottom line. Although there are universal engagement hygiene factors, engagement is not a one-size-fits all experience. Figure out what’s unique to your organizational culture and your people and ask yourself (and them):

  • What makes people come here to work?
  • What keeps people working with your company?
  • What are the drivers that make people work their best?
  • What makes people leave?

With this information, create engagement strategies to help influence commitment, superior work, team connection and meaning.

Do stop emotional contagion in its tracks

If your employee’s level of engagement isn’t a priority (a problem in and of itself) then consider the impact it has on your customers. Emotions are contagious and disengagement has the potential to cause negative emotions, which can negatively impact a relationship with a company or product. Those negative emotions trickle across every tier of a business, within the company and out to the customers. This is called emotional contagion. It’s a very simple concept: if you smile and are positive around someone they will feel good and most likely carry that positivity to the next place they go, which can create a ripple effect, and is pretty amazing when you realize how powerful a small positive gesture can be. The same ripple effect can of course occur when projecting negativity. Don’t believe me? Take a moment and think about whether you feel good or bad around a positive person and/or negative person. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure this one out. If you don’t stop it in its tracks with your employees, it will trickle down to your customers.

Do hire intelligently

You’ve heard this over and over but I don’t think it can be said enough. Hire intelligently! Surround yourself with gems and ensure your people are taken care of. Spend time evaluating the emotional maturity of candidates, not just their technical skills, during and after the hiring process. Once you’ve hired, find out who your employees are – take them out for drinks or dinner and create social opportunities for people to work together (e.g., volunteering, athletic events, fundraising) and see how they react with each other. Sometimes you can have a great employee who is a good worker but whose personality just doesn’t click with the group. That can cause an issue. It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with that employee but creating a team that likes being around each other will of course help your business grow. As a business owner, you truly do have the ability and the responsibility to empower healthy workplace relationships and environments.


Do not be too busy to win

You can’t be a great leader when you are overwhelmed and way too busy. A good way to think about the warning signs is to think of your brain like a shelf. You set it up and over time you forget that the directions said max 50 pounds. So you keep piling books on that shelf and ignore the sagging middle. Another book. Another book. Then snap and you act surprised.

So as this shelf starts sagging our mood starts sagging too. Some of the warning signs for being too busy to win are: readily losing your temper, anxiety, procrastination, forgetting things, loss of concentration and focus, getting stuck writing to do list after to do list without ever to-doing. Your mind does a great job of telling you when you’re too busy to win. It’s up to you to recognize the symptoms and take care of them.

Do not be too proud to see

You can always spot someone experiencing this when they are:

  • Letting themselves get so tied to an idea that they won’t let it go.
  • Refusing to heed the advice of others.
  • Relying on their past successes at the expense of weighing different patterns, options or solutions.

When you are too proud to see, you are letting all of the funky (yet very natural) cognitive biases take over and interfere with effective decision-making, problem-solving and ultimately the efficacy of your leadership.

Do not be too afraid to lose

Being too afraid to lose means that a leader has mistakenly associated failure and mistakes with weakness and incompetence. This false relationship causes leaders to behave stupidly and out-of-character, micromanaging details or becoming immobile. Those suffering from this common ailment are experiencing a problem with what psychologists call self-efficacy. It doesn’t mean that someone lacks self-efficacy all the time; it just means that they may be temporarily suffering from it because of a personal situation, a new work situation or project, a shifting culture or really anything, thereby impeding their effectiveness. The signs that someone is too afraid to lose, include:

  • Excessive worry about failing to get the right result.
  • Questioning and second-guessing every step along the way.
  • Avoiding decisions and commitments that might cause mistakes.
  • Getting involved in every detail, particularly as deadlines loom.

One of the most costly examples of failing to recognize the signs and symptoms of all three of these good boss gone bad triggers occurred in November 2011 when Antonio Horta-Osorio, CEO of Britain’s Lloyd’s Banking Group, was forced to take an extended enforced break due to stress and overwork. Horta-Osorio had joined the group earlier that year and had become CEO in March. By the fall he was suffering from such acute insomnia that he remained awake for five straight days. With no rest and increasing stress and mental exhaustion, he was forced to seek medical help. The results were dramatic; shares in Lloyds shares fell 4.4 percent, a whopping $1.5 billion reduction in market capitalization. Horta-Osario eventually returned to the bank in late December, but he forfeited his bonus and was forced to radically alter both his work and personal habits.

Do not break the psychological contract

A psychological contract is a person’s belief about the mutual obligations that exist between an employer and an employee—some stated and tangible (like you give me pay and benefits and I’ll give you work output, time and hours) and some unstated and intangible (like you will provide me with a positive work culture and opportunity and I’ll give you commitment, loyalty and effort). This contract obviously evolves, both ways, as expectations develop and we start melding into the culture.

Disengagement often happens when there is a breach of this contract. And these breaches, as I’m sure some of us have experienced, come about for a variety of reasons, like violations of trust, actions that reveal a lack of honesty and integrity, behaviors that violate ethics or the law, promises that get broken, assignments that intrude on personal time, job descriptions and expectations that are ill-defined, environments that are difficult and depressing, and leaders who drastically alter the deal.

These breaches that lead to disengagement are critical because research has consistently shown that disengagement can lead to a decline in productivity, performance, workplace safety, loyalty and retention, organizational citizenship behaviors, and overall, the bottom line.

Do not be inconsistent

Though we hate to admit it, as leaders, we have the ability to change the emotional tone of our employees’ day with a couple words, either encouraging or critical. It is thus extremely important for a leader to watch how they reinforce their employees’ behavior and maintain consistency. Consistency creates stability and a stable work environment promotes well-being among workers. Inconsistent bossing can turn a great employee who is excited to come to work every day into a disgruntled employee who allows him/herself to become complacent and disinterested. Inconsistency creates confusion, resentment and disengagement.

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Leadership is tough. Leadership without self-awareness is even tougher. Investing the time and effort into getting to know yourself and getting to know your people and the pulse of your culture is imperative in order to achieve leadership excellence.

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Nicole Lipkin, Psy.D., MBALeadership/Organizational Consultant

Nicole Lipkin, PsyD, MBA is a business and organizational psychologist and the President of Equilibria Leadership Consulting. She is also the founder of Equilibria Psychological and Consultation Services, a group psychology practice, based in Ph...

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