Awareness as Accelerator

In mountain climbing, the higher one goes, the more perilous the environment. At altitudes above 8,000 metres, air becomes so thin that there isn’t enough oxygen in it sufficient to support human life. Climbers that venture above and beyond this altitude enter what mountaineers have come to term the Death Zone. One doesn’t quickly keel over and die here. Instead, it’s a slow deterioration. The lack of oxygen impacts our ability to think clearly and slows down a number of physical reactions. In early stages, as one’s capacities become constrained the limitations aren’t obvious. Many limp along oblivious to their clouded cognitions, pushing forward thinking that they’re fine.

As in mountaineering those that reach higher levels of leadership can become victim to losing touch with the environment in which they operate. Higher levels of organizational achievement creates cognitive challenges of its own. Those in the rare air are several layers removed from the reality of day to day operations. They aren’t directly involved in what the front lines are doing and seeing. Moreover, information received by those at the top is likely arriving after being transferred through several layers which may both dilute the message or confuse it. The phrase common sense is like air, the higher you go the thinner it gets applies here. By definition, those at the top are uncommon. A consequence of this is that they lose touch with those that possess common sense. The disconnect leads to bad decisions.

Comedian Ricky Gervais has humorously pointed out, “Remember, when you are dead, you do not know you are dead. It is only painful for others. The same applies when you are stupid.” Gervais’ assessment could be further extended to include those that wander around oblivious to how their actions are perceived by others and safely ensconced in their absence of self-awareness. They know not of the pain and misery they are putting on others. We can see this comically in some politicians that live lives completely removed from the reality of their constituents. These politicians are opining and creating legislation which will impact others without having any understanding or experience. It may have been years, decades even, since they last drove a car, yet they’re casually commenting on gas or vehicle prices. They can be writing legislation related to areas which will impact millions of people while not being impacted on a personal level at all. Fareed Zakaria, author and CNN host has noted that, “The U.S. Congress is a national embarrassment, except that no one is embarrassed.” The powers that be struggle to see. They are so removed from the world that most inhabit that they seem silly to everyone but themselves when commenting on it.

In Twilight of the Elites, Chris Hayes recounts how 2008 presidential hopeful, Senator John McCain, demonstrated a complete disconnect with average voters when he stumbled and fumbled an answer to a reporter’s question of how many houses did he have. McCain, whose wife is an heiress to a beer magnate, drew a blank when seeking to answer. Sure, most of us could be forgiven for not knowing how many pairs of shoes we have at home or how many shirts may be hanging in our closet, but how many homes do we have seems implausible for the average person to not know. It’s simply an indication that their lives are so completely different from the common citizen. Barack Obama, who won that 2008 presidential election, had the self-awareness to realize that his position could separate him from the reality those he was responsible for governing experienced. To limit losing touch, President Obama, Hayes notes, is said to have spent time every weeknight prior to going to bed reading letters from citizens that his staff curates.

Those at the top face a separate vulnerability in that information may be filtered to be presented favorably to preserve the status of the messenger as opposed to provide the leader accurate information. That is, facts may not be top of mind to take to the top brass. Many are motivated to give leaders what they want to hear instead of what’s crystal clear. It’s just like the position a spouse or boyfriend finds themselves in when they’re dragged to the mall by their better half and asked how their better half looks in the jeans she’s trying on. There’s pretty much only one answer to offer and it’s not necessarily the truth. It’s reasonable for those lower on the ladder to be scared to speak their minds and offer only what they believe a leader wants to hear. Those below aren’t keen to point out problems. The fear of being bludgeoned by the boss for simply being the bearer of bad news makes it less likely that this type of information makes its way up the ivory tower. It’s much easier to present only positive facts or steer stories in a way that will reflect well on a leader. Facts take a back seat to making the leader feel good. This can be exacerbated where leaders are surrounded by sycophants and yes-men. This may be an environment an insecure leader intentionally creates by surrounding themselves only with friends or those that are prepared to agree with them.

Related to this is a separate bias leaders may have which is survivorship bias. They may believe that by virtue of where they are they must be good. That is, they’ve earned their position based on objective displays of competence. Their past judgements must have been accurate. Because they have been accurate in the past and figured things out successfully, clearly they are doing so again now. Karen Ho is an anthropologist that specializes in studying the culture of Wall Street. Her research has identified a “meritocratic feedback loop” that infects this industry. Those in finance circles consider themselves as having things figured out. Each time, they are rewarded with a little more influence, it serves as further reinforcement that they are, in fact, as smart as they think they are. It’s a virtuous cycle of ever expanding confidence which funnels their focus on their own judgement at the exclusion of outside information. In The Psychology of Money, Morgan Housel captures this idea quoting Bill Gates who once said, “Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.” Each time we succeed, we think we’re solely responsible for our progress and that our senses are sharp and spot on. Our confidence in our competence solidifies and we focus more on our own perspective at the exclusion of other considerations. Self-confidence based on the status of their earned position isn’t entirely unwarranted. Questioning their own judgement doesn’t make sense as it is the quality of their judgement that has gotten them to where they are. The default is to have confidence that grows. Leaders absorbed by their own awesomeness are less questioning of their direction and also less open to input from others. They don’t believe they need feedback. The last thing they’re doing is asking for it. If they do receive unsolicited feedback, it’s quickly cast aside as nuisance noise from the unwashed. As hubris sets in, openness to information shuts down.

These challenges all sum to what some refer to as “CEO Disease.” The net result is that leaders can lose touch with the world around them and abandon self-awareness. They become like our climbers that become compromised at high altitudes. External self-awareness involves how others see us. Unfortunately, it’s not something we can accurately assess on our own. We may think we know ourselves better than anyone else, but this isn’t the case. External self-awareness can only be developed through our communication with others. The difficulty in this area is that others aren’t naturally drawn to delivering the truth. We are reluctant to communicate “bad” news to others. We’re happy to share “good” news. This means we get a skewed image of ourselves – disproportionate positive and under covered negative fueling our positive self-concept. Couple this with our reluctance to seek input and we’re largely left in the dark with respect to how others see us. The net result is that we can’t change what we can’t see and our growth stalls.

Tasha Eurich wrote Insight a book about the importance of self-awareness. Eurich suggests self-awareness as the meta-skill of soft skills. It is the one from which others follow. She defines it as “the ability to see ourselves clearly—to understand who we are, how others see us, and how we fit into the world.” If we’re self-aware, we’re able to satisfactorily answer Plato’s direction for us to “know ourselves.” Other soft skills suggested as success factors in our current work worlds include empathy, persuasion, and collaboration, all of which depend on self-awareness.

Research suggests that our brains developed self-awareness around the time we began to get along better in groups. Those that seem more self-aware seem to make better decisions, they are happier, they tend to be more creative and productive. Additionally, they have better relationships. The self-aware have confidence and demonstrate better communication skills. They’re more likely to be honest and less likely to get into trouble. Our success isn’t about raw horsepower, it’s not dependent solely on our conscientiousness and diligence. It depends as much on a solid understanding of self. Are we realistic about our view of ourselves and is it consistent with how others view us?

Eurich considers self-awareness as having two aspects: internal and external. Internal self-awareness is our ability to know our values, passions, aspirations, ideal environment, patterns, reactions, and impact on others. External self-awareness involves understanding how others see us.

It’s not just those at the top that lack self-awareness. It’s a common problem to which we’re all susceptible. As straightforward as this may seem, most of us don’t tend to have sound self-awareness. We prefer comfort and validation over facts. Self-delusion, awareness’ opposite, is our default. Moreover, we think we’re more self-aware than we are. We think we know ourselves and how we look to others, but our assessments compared to others can be widely different. Most of us tend to overrate our abilities on many fronts. An irony of self-awareness is that we need others to help us develop it in ourselves. We can’t develop it fully on our own. We’ll never be legit when we live with HITS: Head In The Sand.

Even though ignorance may be bliss, eventually you’ll feel the burn of blisters. It’s the pain that wakes us up to the need for change. On an episode of Jordan Peterson’s podcast with Vivek Ramaswamy, Peterson observed that we only think when we’re failing. When things are going well, there’s no need to think, just continue the course. When things go sideways, then thinking is required to determine how the train came off track and how to get it back on the rails. The question becomes how sensitive to departure from the path are we? The more sensitive, the quicker we can course correct. Thinking sooner implies sensitivity and openness to error. Humility and receptiveness to feedback as being more in tune to reality. This is a key success factor in sport, business, and life. The best are dialed in to difference. They know themselves and know when they are sliding sideways. In Clearer, Closer, Better: How Successful People See the World, Emily Balcetis writes of the “Pe signal.” Balcetis notes, “This is a brain wave that peaks when a person is consciously aware of having made a mistake; it can detect an individual’s awareness of that mistake in as little as one fifth of a second.” It’s a physiological marker of sensitivity to mistakes. In other words, a biological indication of self-awareness. Those that were keen on improvement displayed higher Pe signals. A sensitivity to recognizing problems was connected to improved subsequent performance. That is, Balcetis observed, “Individuals with greater Pe responses performed better at the task almost immediately.”

Improvement begins with an awareness (and acceptance) of a problem. As Frank Herbert has suggested, “The beginning of knowledge is the discovery of something we do not understand.” There’s something wrong or missing here. It’s only when we begin to realize what we don’t know that we can take steps to develop the gaps in our knowledge. With this acknowledgement coupled with pain, we become motivated to do something about it. It may not feel good as Robert Newton Peck shows us through a character in his book A Part of the Sky (A Day No Pigs Would Die). A farmer having been kicked by a cow is asked by a child, “I’d asked … did it hurt? And all Ben said was … it gits your attention.” Yes, pain hurts, that’s the purpose it serves, to get our attention. To make us glaringly aware that some kind of change is needed. Now we’re paying attention and looking for something to do to remedy our pain. Acceptance and a desire to reduce pain breeds enrollment. We want to work on improving things. From here, we’re looking to learn. We start with sharpening our sensitivity to pain which shapes our will which fuels the desire to build the skill.

Alan Mulally, former CEO of both Boeing and Ford, told Eurich, “Throughout my career and my life, there has been one essential truth: the biggest opportunity for improvement—in business, at home, and in life—is awareness.” True enough, after all, it’s tough to change what we can’t see needs to be changed. Those that relish reality will win the race. Eurich encourages us to ask “what could we gain by seeing our behavior more clearly? What could we learn by seeking the truth on our own terms?” Developing an interest in learning about ourselves and seeking objective feedback based on reality is at the heart of those that are good at self-awareness. We can overcome or at least temper our blindspots by seeking to constantly learn, embrace feedback, and to examine our assumptions. Awakening our self-awareness is a potential key success factor waiting for each of us to further explore.

Summary Points:

  • As in mountaineering those that reach higher levels of leadership can become victim to losing touch with the environment in which they operate.
  • Higher levels of organizational achievement creates cognitive challenges of its own.
  • The powers that be struggle to see.
  • We can’t change what we can’t see and our growth stalls.
  • Are we realistic about our view of ourselves and is it consistent with how others view us?
  • We’ll never be legit when we live with HITS: Head In The Sand.
  • Even though ignorance may be bliss, eventually you’ll feel the burn of blisters.
  • It’s the pain that wakes us up to the need for change.
  • The best are dialed in to difference.
  • Those that relish reality will win the race.