Why Self-Awareness in Your Employees Is a Better Indicator of Success Than Skill

In 2012, Move This World was a rapidly growing startup. Like many early-stage organizations, we hadn’t yet discovered our core product, didn’t have the funding we needed, and had a team full of young, inexperienced people. 

Inexperience in and of itself wasn’t necessarily a problem. Someone who is open and willing to learn will gain experience over time. Today, we have employees who have been with us for nearly a decade, who have learned and grown with the company. Not only have they helped shape the current and future product, but I completely trust their intuition to handle whatever comes their way. 

There’s a key difference between someone who is aware of their inexperience and someone who’s trying to hide it. Just like any skill that you develop, the ability to know what you know and what you don’t must be cultivated. This was first clear to me when, in the early days of Move This World, I had a young, inexperienced colleague whom I struggled to support because she couldn’t take the first step in supporting herself.

More challenging than the work or projects themselves, this colleague was pushed to try to understand herself and her own needs so that she could set herself up for success. I remember one conversation where I reminded her that no one could read her mind or advocate for what she needed if she did not know what she needed so that she could give that to herself. 

I would rather have an employee tell me “I don’t know,” or “I may need some help with this” than say what they think I want to hear or what they want to believe for themselves. It’s OK not to know. While it can be uncomfortable to say “I don’t know,” follow up with, “Let me do some research and come back to you with any questions.” This open communication not only builds trust and helps avoid imposter syndrome, it also shows that you are grounded in what you know, and helps your employer understand your boundaries and limitations — which we all have. Ultimately, it creates a more confident working relationship for everyone. 

If we don’t know our personal areas for development, then we can’t ask for help, seek resources, or identify mentors or coaches. Recently an adviser gave me very direct feedback and was surprised when my response was to seek an external coach to help me improve. The adviser was accustomed to offering direct feedback and it being received in defense.

By being open to improving and seeking any opportunity that would make us stronger at our craft, we attract mentors and coaches who want to advise us because of the way we receive their perspective and expertise.

Reflection, and Honest Self-Evaluation

If we don’t take the time to reflect on the things we need in our lives in order to succeed and thrive, we will never reach our highest level. Individual reflection is not just about building in time for quiet pause, for reading, or for creative pursuits, it is about asking yourself tough questions and truly going inward to recognize where you are strong, and where you need support. It is about being real, honest, and vulnerable with yourself.

If you don’t know what you need, how can someone else give it to you? If you don’t ask for help, managers can’t connect you with resources or mentors and will rarely have sympathy when the project is wrong or late.

Setting the tone for this kind of reflection and honesty starts from the top. What sets leaders apart are those who identify the very real, personal failures that we make every day, because failing is inherent in the creative process and in building something special.

Owning our failures shows the people around you that a) you are a human being who makes mistakes, b) you don’t think you are incapable of failure, and c) you recognize that failures are a natural part of the creative process. Embodying these behaviors gives permission for your team to commit the inevitable failures that come on the journey to success. Some organizations even go so far as to celebrate failures as learning opportunities.

Today, I would hire someone who is self-aware and willing to admit their shortcomings and learn, over someone who is more experienced but can’t name their areas for development or their failures. Self-awareness, a key social-emotional learning competency, is the differentiator in mediocre performance and average or underperforming employees and employees who are rock stars. We’ve all been there. If we can be real with each other, we’ll go much further together.

Sara Potler LaHayne (@sara_lahayne) is Founder and CEO of Move This World, a social-emotional learning program supporting students.

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