Career Column

Self-Awareness: Becoming Your Best Professional Self

Mina Awad
Rutgers Post-Doctoral Fellow


ow we view ourselves in relation to those around us is becoming increasingly important in the workplace. Many companies look for candidates who are self-aware, which employers recognize by identifying signals of “emotional intelligence” and “ability to work well on a team.” In a fast-paced, matrixed environment with colleagues from different backgrounds, an individual’s ability to see themselves clearly makes them a better asset and fosters a happy and productive team dynamic.

A recent study suggests that self-aware people have a significantly stronger ability to make better decisions, build strong relationships, and communicate more effectively. They were also less likely to lie, cheat, or steal. Most importantly, it showed that they were more effective leaders and more likely to be promoted. Today’s hiring managers are not just looking for someone with the technical skills necessary to complete a task, but rather someone who can complete a task in a way that sets themselves and the whole team up for greater success.
Although becoming self-aware may take years of practice and development, below are three practical strategies that could help in your journey toward becoming more self-aware.

1. Create a structured way to help you reflect: Companies globally have instituted self, manager, and team evaluations (360-degree feedback) to gather information on areas for potential improvement. However, most companies perform these formal evaluations on a quarterly or annual schedule, which may not be ideal timing for feedback that promotes growth. Instead, scheduling weekly or monthly appointments to reflect on major projects or activities may provide more frequent and proactive opportunities for development.

When you reflect, either alone or with a mentor or colleague, preparing for the meeting by identifying specific questions will yield the most impactful conversations. For example, instead of asking, “What can I do better?” ask, “What specific projects or presentations have I completed that have gone well or poorly this month? What could I have done differently to further improve?” Asking specific questions provides an efficient way to uncover beneficial information on the area you are looking to improve.

2. Be objective when you reflect: When reflecting on a positive or negative event, research shows that we may be less oriented towards identifying the problem and more concerned with defending ourselves. To avoid this, plainly ask what happened in the situation and what could have been done differently to have a better outcome. For example, when evaluating your performance score for a quarter, you may feel compelled to ask, “Why did I receive this score?” This question may cause feelings of defensiveness and lead you to identify reasons why the score is “unjust.” However, if you start by asking, “What did I do to be given this score?,” you create an opportunity to identify areas that require improvement, or, in the case of a positive score, identify what to continue to do to maintain the score.

3. Cultivate a robust support system: A support system that is invested in your success will not only help your objectivity but create a safety net against the risk of failure. A good manager or mentor will not hesitate to tell you a hard truth instead of giving you kind but unhelpful words. They will be available when you need them to deliver honest feedback, or to provide insight on behaviors you display of which you are not aware.

Key Principles for Healthy, Functional Mentor Relationship

To establish a healthy, functional relationship with a mentor, follow these key principles:

  • First, ask the mentor directly if they are willing to give you candid professional development advice. If they seem as unwilling to invest the effort, the relationship will likely be unproductive.
  • If they are willing, share your specific areas of concern to prepare them to look out for these areas.
  • Create a safe environment where they can be honest with their observations and advice. For example, after you lead a meeting, gratefully welcome their advice, but then take time to reflect and discuss your thoughts with them at another time. Avoid reacting immediately, or defending yourself, which may create unhealthy conversation.
  • Finally, consider what steps you must take to turn their feedback into self-improvement. If a mentor sees you implementing their feedback, it confirms to them that you are just as invested in your career as they are, and will continue to provide feedback moving forward.

Being aware of yourself is important at an individual, team, and organization-wide level. By committing to work toward self-awareness, you agree to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. This discomfort, created by regularly examining yourself under an objective microscope, is critical to uncovering the speed bumps you must overcome on your way to becoming your best professional self.