What do we mean by self awareness?

Organisations that experience rapid change and complexity are made up of social systems. That is, all the people in the organisational system bring their own complexity and mess into the system. If we want to be successful in this broader system, then we need to better understand how others experience us. We can’t afford our own individual system (described below) tripping us up as we try and navigate change.

In my work, I specialise in helping individuals build their self-awareness. My simple definition of self-awareness is ‘the capacity to objectively understand your individual system and how it plays out in your external environment’.

Our Individual System

There are two parts to this. The first is understanding what makes up our individual system. Our individual system contains a number of components. It includes things such as our values, our preferences, our strengths, our overused strengths, our weaknesses, our emotional triggers, our needs and our world view (our belief systems and our assumptions that are formed from our family of origin and develop over time). These components that make up our individual systems are unique to us and highlight how complex we are as human beings.

The second part of the self-awareness definition is understanding how each of these components play out for you both internally (your understanding of self) and externally (how others see and experience you).

Internal Perspective 

Understanding your self-awareness at an internal level would include your own self view of those components that make up your individual system. In other words what do you see in terms of your strengths, values, emotional triggers, world view, etc.? For example, I might be aware that I have a belief that I need to be liked by others, that I value fairness, and that I am skilled in facilitating groups and understanding how people develop.

External Perspective (How others see you)

Understanding yourself at an external level involves how others experience the impact of your skills, emotional triggers, world views, values etc. This is an important distinction and highlights the importance of intention versus impact. For example, I might think I have good listening skills as I value that trait, but others may experience me as someone who interrupts in meetings or dominates a conversation with peers. In other words, my intention does not align with the impact I am having.

We increase awareness of our internal and external view through feedback and engaging our reflective practice. The more we open ourselves up to feedback the richer our self-awareness.


Let me give you an example of a coaching client I recently worked with named Ruby. When helping Ruby to understand her individual system, we identified that one of her strong needs was approval, or being liked by others. In our coaching sessions, Ruby recognised the origins of this need. She identified that her intention was to not disappoint people (something she learnt growing up), but also importantly how it manifested with her external environment. She identified her inability to say no to requests, her unwillingness to engage in productive conflict, and her tendency to procrastinate with holding difficult conversations with her team. Her stakeholder feedback aligned with this, but one piece of feedback that increased her self-awareness was that her stakeholders wanted to hear from her more in meetings as they knew she had so much to offer. Due to her need for approval, Ruby recognised that she would often be quiet in meetings rather than share her opinions on things.

The work we did together was not just about helping Ruby to understand her need but also how others experienced it. Once she was able to see this, we started to work on experimenting with behaviours, such as speaking up more in meetings and stating her need to be listened to when engaging in productive conflict with her peers.

The Flipside 

There is a flipside to this. We may have a different view of self from a negative perspective. Through our inner critic, we tell ourselves stories that create a negative view of our individual system. Our inner critic may insist that we lack competence in an area, that we are not comfortable in groups, or that we are not as smart as those around us. However, feedback from our external world can suggest otherwise. This is why understanding how people see us is an important aspect of self-awareness. It allows us to validate and benchmark our view of self. It can give us confidence to override that pesky inner critic or as one of my clients referred to it as their itty, bitty shitty committee!

Understanding ourselves and how others experience us enables us to be more agile in the moment. It allows us to deploy more effective strategies when making decisions, dealing with emotions, interacting with others and navigating our way through complex change. If you lack self-awareness, not only are you are unlikely to learn and grow, but you are more likely to have less effective interpersonal relationships, be perceived negatively, and repeat patterns of behaviour that don’t work for you.

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