Our theme for June is Self-Awareness, and we know understanding yourself is the key to being an effective leader and change maker. Self-awareness is the foundation of our July topic, Leadership. The best leaders know themselves well. They've done the hard work of learning about their strengths and weaknesses. They know when to shine and stand on a stage and when to fall back and be a follower. Self-awareness is not just important professionally; it is critical to personal success. How do you handle stress? What healthy and unhealthy ways do you cope? How has your past shaped you? What words do you tell yourself? When, where, and in what kind of work environment are you at your best? How much alone time do you really need? These are all questions we hope to help you work through this month. We are thrilled that Linda Whited, this month's Girl's Guide author, is going to host an online workshop for our members based on the StrengthsFinder book and assessment, now known as CliftonStrengths.
Linda, you are a certified career counselor with training in CliftonStrengths. What sparked your interest in helping others become more self-aware?
I suppose it comes from my own exploration and how useful it has been for me to have confidence in my decisions because I know who I am and who I’m not. I did a lot of this exploration in my early 20s and enjoyed the conversations that came from that, even in my own peer group. We would find things in common and experience some “aha” moments to understand why we did the things we did. Once I got into the world of career preparation and coaching, I saw how self-awareness provided such a backbone to a career conversation. When people know their interests, values, and skills, they can move forward secure in what they offer to the world and uniquely contribute in a job.
Why is self-awareness so tied into leadership?
In my master’s program in counseling, we learned a mantra early on — “counselor know thyself” — and it impacted how we understood theories and interventions with clients. This came up as we explored the ethical implications of counseling — when is it appropriate for me to help someone and when am I not the right person? This came from reflection, assessment, conversation, feedback, etc. The more we can understand our triggers and what makes us tick, the better we can be in all our relationships — with ourselves, our families, and our work.
That same phrase can be applied in every work setting, especially for leaders. When a leader understands how her strengths, passions, interests, values, and personality interact with her work, she can be more effective, productive, and impactful. A leader is more effective at delegating tasks when she’s aware of her own tendencies and where her energy comes from. For example, if she’s the big-picture thinker who would rather create a vision than do minute tasks, she can empower an employee to run point on a project that needs to be done in a systematic way. She’s more productive when she has a firm foundation of her worth — not getting caught up in people pleasing or perfectionism — and chooses to spend her time on what matters. She’s more impactful, because as she becomes more self-aware, she also grows in appreciation of others’ strengths and skills, which allows teams to accomplish more in a fruitful and positive way.
What is a way a self-aware person may act in a stressful situation at work, such as dealing with a conflict with a co-worker, versus a less self-aware person?
So if you think about a person who is usually conflict-avoidant, this situation would be very stressful. Perhaps in the past, this person has left a job because of a conflict, been taken advantage of, or overlooked for an opportunity due to her avoidance. But that same person who is avoidant can be aware of her tendency toward avoidance and put a stop to the recurring pattern. She can proactively seek advice, push through her comfort zone, practice ways to address the conflict, get a coach, etc. The awareness is the first step toward handling a conflict with a co-worker in a way that makes the stress productive rather than all-consuming or detrimental to one’s health.
In your opinion, how much should we focus on our strengths versus our weaknesses?
Strengths should be where we focus when we are making a decision. In the context of a career, you want to be sure you’re using your strengths as often as possible in the job you’re doing. That could mean taking on things not in your job description or advocating for a change in your job so you can flourish (and make more of a positive impact for the employer). If you’re able to live in your strengths during the majority of your work hours, you’ll be more engaged and make a stronger contribution. This is the very reason I became a career counselor and why I left a job without another one lined up!
We can’t be the ostrich with our heads in the sand, ignoring our weaknesses. In fact, many employers like to ask about weaknesses in job interviews to see what kind of self-awareness we have. We all have weaknesses — it’s human! I think about focusing on weaknesses when they get in the way of the direction you’re trying to go. For example, when I was interested in being promoted, I talked with my supervisor about what I needed to do to be ready for it and learned the leadership role was one in which I needed to be known by the larger campus community — despite my wheelhouse of working one-on-one with students. I sought out a couple of committees that would help me do this and felt more prepared when I interviewed for the promotion once it became available.
How does self-awareness tie into self-care?
Self-aware people know which self-care strategies are going to feed their souls. A warm bath or a night at a hotel won’t be quite the trick for everyone. For example, as an extrovert, I tend to call a few close friends to talk through stressors as they arise. If I am not able to talk it out, it stews under the surface. However, as I’ve grown in my awareness of my extrovertedness, I’ve also seen how valuable silence can be to really engage with my soul and my spirituality. Just before I turned 30, I made a point to go on a 24-hour silent retreat. I was hesitant, so I had to give myself a deadline, and once I did it, I really enjoyed it and gained some profound clarity that I still reflect on and am grateful for. Understanding who I am naturally gave me the freedom to stretch and grow into the lesser-known parts of me — in this case, the introversion.