Although self-awareness – knowing who we are and how we’re seen – is important for job performance, career success and leadership effectiveness, it is in remarkably short supply in today’s workplace. In a nearly five-year research programme on the subject, it was discovered that although 95% of people think they’re self-aware, only 10 to 15% actually are.
At the office, we don’t have to look far to find unaware colleagues – people who, despite past successes, solid qualifications or irrefutable intelligence, show a complete lack of insight into how they are coming across.
In a survey conducted with 467 working adults in the US across several industries, 99% reported working with at least one such person, while nearly half worked with at least four. Peers were the most frequent offenders, with 73% of respondents reporting at least one unaware peer, followed by direct reports at 33%, bosses at 32% and clients at 16%.
Unself-aware colleagues aren’t just frustrating; they can cut a team’s chances of success in half. According to research, other consequences of working with unaware colleagues include increased stress, decreased motivation and a greater likelihood of leaving one’s job.
So how do we deal with these situations? Is it possible to help the unaware see themselves more clearly? And if we can’t, what can we do to minimise their damage on our success and happiness?
Understanding the problem
Not all badly-behaving colleagues suffer from a lack of self-awareness and not all who do can be helped. Therefore, you must first determine whether the source of the problem is truly someone’s lack of self-awareness. Ask yourself: what’s behind the tension?
When we’re having trouble working with someone, the problem isn’t always a lack of self-awareness on their part. Interpersonal conflict can arise from different priorities, incompatible communication styles or a lack of trust.
To determine whether you’re truly dealing with an unself-aware person, consider how others around them feel. Typically, if someone is unaware, there’s a consensus about their behaviour. More specifically, we’ve found several consistent behaviours of unself-aware individuals:
• They won’t listen to or accept critical feedback;
• They cannot empathise with or take the perspective of others;
• They have difficulty “reading a room” and tailoring their message to their audience;
• They possess an inflated opinion of their contributions and performance;
• They are hurtful to others without realising it;
• They take credit for successes and blame others for failures.
Where is this person coming from?
In contrast to the unaware, certain difficult colleagues know exactly what they’re doing, but aren’t willing to change.
The biggest difference between the unaware and the aware-don’t-care are their intentions: the unaware genuinely want to be collaborative and effective, but don’t know they’re falling short.
Whereas the aware-don’t-care unapologetically acknowledge their behaviour (“Of course, I’m pushy with clients. It’s the only way to make the sale!”), the unaware can’t see how they’re showing up (“That client meeting went well!”).
Helping the unaware
Once you’ve determined someone suffers from a lack of self-awareness, it is time to honestly assess whether they can be helped. Think about their intentions and whether they would want to change. Have you seen them ask for a different perspective or welcome critical feedback? This suggests that it is possible to help them become more self-aware.
But the odds can be steep. A survey found that although 70% of people with unaware colleagues had tried to help them improve, only 31% were successful or very successful. Among those who decided not to help, only 21% said they regretted their decision. So, before you step in, ask yourself:
Am I the right messenger?
The number one reason survey respondents gave for not helping an unaware person was that they didn’t think they were the right messenger. It is true that when helping the unaware, providing good, constructive feedback only gets us part of the way. For someone to truly be open to critical feedback, they must trust us. They must fundamentally believe that we have their best interests at heart. When trust is present, the other person will feel more comfortable being vulnerable, a prerequisite to accept one’s unaware behaviour.
Think about the relationship you have with your unaware colleague: have you gone out of your way to help or support them in the past? Are you confident they will see your feedback for what it is – a show of support to help them get better – rather than inferring a more nefarious motive? Are there others who might be better suited to deliver the feedback than you?
Am I willing to accept the worst-case scenario?
The second most common reason people decide not to help the unaware is that the risk is simply too high. As one of the study participants noted: “I may not be able to help and trying (might) just make them angry”.
The consequences of help gone awry can range from uncomfortable (tears, the silent treatment or yelling) to career-limiting (an employee might quit, a colleague may try to sabotage us or a boss could fire us).
Here, power differentials are a factor. For example, though unaware bosses have an especially detrimental impact on their employees’ job satisfaction, performance and well-being, confronting one’s boss is inherently riskier because of the positional power she or he holds.
Conversely, the risk is usually lower with peers and even lower with direct subordinates. In fact, if you have an unaware employee, it is literally your job to help them. But regardless of their place on the organisational chart, we must be ready to accept the worst-case scenario should it occur.
If you believe you can help, then what’s the best way to do so? There are many helpful resources on providing high-quality feedback. Most apply to the unaware. There are, however, three practices worth emphasising for these individuals.
First, talk to them in person. Research has suggested that those who provide feedback via email are 33% less successful.
Second, instead of bringing up their behaviour out of the blue, practise strategic patience. If possible, wait until your colleague expresses feelings of frustration or dissatisfaction that, unbeknownst to them, are being caused by their unawareness. Ask if you can offer an observation in the spirit of their success and well-being. Using the word “feedback” risks defensiveness.
Third, if they agree, focus on their specific, observable behaviour and how it limits their success. End the conversation by reaffirming your support and asking how you can help.
What to do if they don’t change
It is easy to feel hopeless when you can’t help someone who is unaware. The good news is that although we can’t force insight on them, we can minimise their impact on us.
Reframe their behaviour
The popular workplace practice of mindfulness can be an effective tool for dealing with the unaware. Specifically, noticing what we’re feeling in a given moment allows us to reframe the situation and be more resilient.
Here is one tool we can use to notice, but not get drawn into our negative reactions to the unaware. I first came up with the “laugh track” when I had the misfortune of work¬ing for an aware-don’t-care boss. One day, after a particularly unpleas¬ant encounter, I recalled my favourite TV show growing up, The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Mary’s boss was a surly man named Lou Grant. On a good day, Lou was grumpy. On a bad day, he was downright abusive. But because his comments were followed by a canned laugh track, they became surprisingly endearing.
I de¬cided that the next time my boss said something horrible, I’d imagine a laugh track behind it instead. I was frequently surprised at how much less hurtful and occasionally hilarious this tool rendered him.
Find their humanity
As easy as it can be to forget, even the most unaware among us are still human. If we remember this, instead of flying off the handle when they’re behaving badly, we can recognise that at the core, their unaware behaviour is a sign that they are struggling. We can adopt the mindset of compassion without judgement.
Researchers have found that honing our compassion skills helps us remain calm in the face of difficult people and situations. As management professor Hooria Jazaieri pointed out: “There are (negative) consequences when we are thinking bad thoughts about someone” – compassion “allows us to let them go”.
Play the long game
When it comes to dealing with the unaware, one of the most important things to remember is that just because they’re that way now doesn’t mean they won’t change in the future. Unaware behaviour sometimes has to be pointed out multiple times before the feedback begins to stick. As one of the research participants noted: “Sometimes they have to bump their head enough times to finally see the light”.
The research showed that people can make dramatic, transformational improvements in their self-awareness. Though it takes courage, commitment and humility, it is indeed possible. Whether or not the people around us choose to improve their self-awareness, we have complete control over the choice to improve ours. Importantly, perhaps that’s where our energy is best spent.