Just as people differ in height, musical talent, and sense of humor, there are pretty consistent differences in their ability to understand how others see them. Such differences are usually attributed to their self-awareness, though a more appropriate name for this ability would be other-awareness: awareness of how our actions affect — and are therefore evaluated by — other people.
Unsurprisingly, self-awareness is omnipresent in leadership models. After all, leaders are tasked with influencing and engaging their teams, so it is essential that they understand how their behaviors impact other people. For example, leaders need to decide whether positive or negative feedback is more effective in motivating an underperforming employee; how best to communicate their vision in order to provide followers with a meaningful mission and sense of purpose; and how to act as brand ambassadors for their organizations. None of these things can be accomplished effectively unless leaders are able to predict how their actions will be perceived by their followers, teams, and organizations.
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And yet self-awareness is depressingly rare. For instance, psychological research suggests there is less than 10% overlap between people’s actual and self-perceived competence, mostly because people are not as adept as they think they are. This tendency to be unjustifiably pleased with oneself is exacerbated in leaders, not least because people are often promoted to leadership positions based on their confidence rather than their competence — especially when they are male. In line, evolutionary psychologists have long argued that one of the reasons for the ubiquity of self-deception is that it helps individuals deceive other people. When you think you are better than you actually are, you probably will not display many insecurities, which will cause others to mistake your confidence for competence.
If self-awareness is so rare in leaders, it is likely that most people will at some point work for a Boss who lacks it. If this is you, you are not alone! Here are three data-driven recommendations for dealing with such leaders:
Help them out. Although upward feedback — when subordinates evaluate their leaders — can be pretty suicidal, it is also the most valuable data point to judge leaders’ performance. Without being overly blunt or critical, you can help your boss understand how the team or organization is feeling, providing a social reading of the situation that your boss may be missing. When leaders are not totally deprived of self-awareness — meaning they are at least somewhat coachable — this approach will help them understand key aspects of their teams and organizations they may not be naturally able to capture. So long as they are curious and humble enough to learn, and you are skilled enough to get them to pay attention to you, you may end up enhancing their self-awareness with yours. Be the lens through which your boss can have a better understanding of the workplace. However, it is key that you suggest this with tact rather than bluntly imposing your views on your boss. For example, you could offer observations such as: “Did you notice that John is a bit down today?”; “Have you noticed that Jenny is overworked?”; or simply, “Would you mind if I share some observations about Isabelle with you?”
The next two suggestions deal with more-problematic cases.
Learn to cope with their dark side. When leaders lack self-awareness, they often overindulge in toxic or undesirable behaviors — because they have no filter or ability to contain themselves. To be clear, everyone has a dark side, but when leaders are self-aware, they monitor their behaviors more effectively and learn to control their problematic tendencies, keeping these toxic assets in check. Thus if you work for a leader who is not self-aware, your main task will be to develop an effective repertoire for coping with their dark side. For example, bold leaders can be expected to make overconfident and reckless decisions, to ignore negative feedback (even from their bosses), and to dominate meetings and discussions. The best thing to do if you work for such an egocentric boss is to compensate for their natural disposition by being alert to problems and risks and trying to manage them.
If leaders are Machiavellian, on the other hand, they will enjoy using their charm to manipulate others, and create cultures that are highly political. While playing politics is the only way of dealing with such leaders, you will need to find the balance between being in your boss’s in-group without engaging in unethical or antisocial behaviors toward your colleagues. Or you may work for a boss who is overly imaginative and derails things by being overly eccentric, having unfeasible ideas, and jumping from one project to another without the ability to focus or execute. In that case, you will need to turn yourself into a detailed project manager who can complement this type of manager, in order to translate some of their imaginative outbursts into innovative outputs.
In short, leaders who lack self-awareness can be expected to overuse their strengths, to the point of turning them into weaknesses. But if you can both adapt to those counterproductive tendencies and mitigate them with opposite behaviors, it will help your boss — and team — perform more effectively.
Learn to coexist with their reality distortion. When leaders are too narcissistic or deluded to be coached on self-awareness, your best bet is to understand how precisely they distort reality and learn to coexist with it — as opposed to challenging it. Even when people are irrational, they are still largely predictable, so your main goal should be to detect your manager’s default patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving and adapt to them. Sadly, this does require providing fake validation for their fantasy, but it is no doubt a better alternative for your career than to attempt to provide your boss with a reality check or question their view of the world. In fact, even when leaders are narcissistic, they are often insecure and in desperate need of validation. You will have a better relationship with your boss if you play the game and reinforce their self-views — just remember to not abandon reality yourself!
Note that while these three suggestions try to alleviate the problems caused by leaders who lack self-awareness, they do require that you have some self-awareness yourself. That cannot be taken for granted. Naturally, often people who lack self-awareness think they are self-aware, so if you want to know where you stand, the only way to find out is to obtain critical feedback from others on your own skills and talents and adjust your self-views accordingly.