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Self-Awareness as a Predictor of Success
A case for why self-awareness is one of the best predictors of high performance in the work place.
Having worked closely with over fifty software engineers as my time as a manager, I have often asked myself the question as to what makes a high achiever? Is there a skillset that makes people more likely to be able to outperform their peers?
Some might shout "technical ability", "work ethic" or "communication skills".
Whilst these are all valuable in their own sense, they are not water tight predictors of ‘success’. I can think of numerous cases for each that prove these theories wrong - strong technical people, great communicators or hard workers who have been underperforming because what they make up for in one area, they lack in other areas.
As time goes on, I think there is one skill that stands out above all the rest for being a predictor of success. Something that is naturally gained with experience, but also can be cultivated early on with the right intentions.
That is self-awareness.
What is self-awareness?
"If you're highly self-aware, you can objectively evaluate yourself, manage your emotions, align your behaviour with your values, and understand correctly how others perceive you." - A Theory of Objective Self Awareness
Self-awareness may seem fairly fluffy on the outside. It doesn't really even seem tangible. It's not a hard skill like technical chops, it’s not measurable like hours spent working or unlike communication skills, it’s not particularly visible. Someone suggested to me it was "transcendental" which I disagree with. But by nature it is difficult to pin down and articulate.
But I have an example.
I have known this particular engineer for a number of years. He was proactive in reaching out to me for coaching when he was early in his career, and wanted some advice on how to get started in the industry.
We met again a few years later, when I was fortunate enough to be his manager. Over the course of the first few weeks of managing any new report, I send across a few questions for them to ponder over - things like "What are you most proud of achieving?", and "What are your ambitions?".
Typically this is something that sparks a few conversations and helps me build a picture of an individual and how I can bring them the most value. Generally the pattern is that people are beginning to get a good understanding of some of these topics when they have been in the industry for a few years. The more junior folk need a bit more help fleshing out some of the questions. The more senior folk tend to have good understandings of some of the different areas, their strengths and weaknesses as well as their ambitions.
This engineer however sent me a list of strengths and weaknesses prior to me sending across the initial questions.
"These are the things I know I can bring great value at, and these are the things that I know I can get better at with your help".
As a manager this is incredibly valuable, to have a play-sheet of strengths and weaknesses for each report is fantastic, but I had not seen anyone who wasn't at a particularly senior level articulate themselves this way before and have that amount of introspection. But there was impact past that.
This engineer continued on to be an outstanding performer. His peer feedback was exceptionally good - he immediately established relationships with the team, even though by nature he was more introverted. He worked well with the engineers as well as his Product Owner and was on track to receiving a promotion well within the year to a senior role.
Sure, he wasn’t the most experienced technically in the team by any stretch and for the most part he wasn’t the best communicator on the team, however he played to his strengths and doubled down on them. He let the team know how he could bring the most amount of value, and then he delivered on it. He came across challenges, but he was un-hesitant in asking for advice or asking for help.
Within six months however, we were talking about the potential of him moving on to pastures new.
"This job doesn't match what I want from a role, and I don't think I can be truly happy here. These are the things I like about the role, and here are the things that I don't think are a good fit".
I respected the decision, because it was so well thought out and well articulated. Despite my best efforts to work something out, how could I argue with what this individual believed deep down? Having a clear idea of where he was heading and what was going to get him there and then sticking to it was truly inspirational. As a manager it is my job to support people to get the best from their careers, and sometimes that means taking new challenges elsewhere.
Not only had this engineer demonstrated a deep understanding of his own strengths and weaknesses, he had also demonstrated a connection with his own values. He knew his ambitions, and could understand that this environment wasn't the vessel that would help him get there.
When you go into the more senior echelons of an engineering organisation (Staff+), you will find that the people who are there have gotten there because they usually have a great understanding of their own ability.
Some are stronger technically than others, some of better communicators than others. But the thing that crops up more often than not is these individuals are able to self-reflect and do it pretty well.
They know what value they can bring to an organisation, and they believe it and live by it. Sure, there are some exceptions, but I believe these exceptions are fairly rare.
Self-awareness is understanding (or having a desire to seek to understand) many things:
It is knowing your strengths and weaknesses.
It is knowing what opportunities you should take to develop both your strengths and weaknesses.
It is knowing when you are pushing yourself too much or too little. When you have bitten off more than you can chew, or when you need something a little calmer.
It is knowing when to ask someone for help, or saying I don't know the answer to that question but let’s work it out together. When to show vulnerability to build respect and connection, but when too much vulnerability is too much.
It is having an understanding of your own values.
It’s being in touch with your feelings and emotions and being able to work with them, not against them.
It is being able to connect with your own ambitions, and to be able to work towards them, making hard decisions when necessary to help you achieve what you want to achieve.
As a closing note, one of my favourite podcasts is The Diary of a CEO - for those who might not have listened to it, Steven Bartlett speaks to extraordinary people who have all achieved 'success' in their own fields - actors & actresses, business people, scientists, doctors, philosophers, reality stars, musicians, athletes etc..
Some of these people are incredibly intellectuals with hard skills and traditional smarts. Some are school dropouts. Some are epic story tellers and communicators. Some have come from under-represented backgrounds, whilst others have come from privilege and each have their own unique set of skills that life has given them.
The one thing that sticks out to me that is unifying is how self-reflective these people are. They are able to talk on a deep level about their own motivators, drivers, strengths and weaknesses and what traumas in life shaped their current behaviours. There is a level of understanding about what has gotten them to this point in life, where they are heading next and what is driving them to get there. These people for the most part have a deep understanding of themselves and self-awareness.
Sure, not everyone who is self-aware is a great performer, and there are great performers who are not particularly self-aware, there are always going to be exceptions. But in terms of for-seeing success, I think self-awareness is definitely a contender for being the best predictor.
And the beautiful thing is that this behaviour can be learned, by anyone at anytime. All it takes is a willingness to look within and a desire to understand yourself a little bit better.
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