When I use the term awareness, I’m referring to how conscious you are of something, whether that is your environment, information, events, objects, others you are interacting with, yourself, or any other aspect of life. An “aware” person is someone whose subjective experience and perception of the world within and around them is reasonably close to others’ experiences and perceptions, or as close to “objective reality” as we can get as humans. In the leadership context, there are three levels of awareness that are important: self-awareness, other awareness, and systems awareness.
Self-awareness is your ability to recognize yourself as distinct from others and the world around you. Self-awareness includes being aware of your:
- Cognitive world: Thoughts, beliefs, biases, assumptions, values, mental activity
- Emotional world: Emotions, feelings, moods
- Behavior in the world: Language, behaviors, actions – and how your behavior impacts others and is impacted by invisible forces such as power, culture, and trust.
These three domains interact with and influence one another greatly. Our thoughts can lead us to act in certain ways, which can make us feel a certain way. Likewise, our moods influence the language we choose to use and that, in turn, creates further thoughts, behaviors, and feelings … and so on. Self-awareness involves being aware of how your thinking, emotions, and behavior influence one another as well as your interactions and relationships with others.
Self-awareness as a leader means you’re also aware of the invisible forces within you that are at play when you are at work, namely the power and influence you hold in the organization overall and moment-to-moment. If you don’t recognize your own power when you have it, you won’t use it in a healthy and effective way, and won’t notice the corresponding power dynamics at play (see Other Awareness).
For example, as a leader you likely hold formal power, such as role, title, and decision-making authority, which create boss vs subordinate dynamics. But you might hold types of informal power at work that can be harder to recognize, such as:
- Expert Power: Expert power results from deep experience, skill, and/or knowledge about a particular area of significance in an organization or industry. The more rare and difficult the expertise is to get, the more credibility, respect, and subsequent power a person will have.
- Reward Power: When you have the ability to pay or otherwise compensate others in your organization, you have reward power. Rewards may come in the form of grants, promotions, raises, jobs, or other perks. Reward power is often coupled with formal power, but not always.
- Informational Power: While expert power tends to relate to a deep and specific expertise, informational power tends to relate to general knowledge about an organization and its processes, culture, people, and history. Someone with informational power may hold a long tenure at an organization or have a role with broad oversight.
- Network Power: This kind of power is all about whom you know and how big your network is. Your network may include connections within your organization or external to it – and may even include personal networks.
- Referent Power: Referent power most commonly relates to those with charisma and likeability. Famous people, social media influencers, and some politicians are examples of those with referent power, but anyone who can win influence with their appeal and attractiveness has access to referent power.
- Location Power (Sometimes called Centrality Power): One form of centrality power is location power, which is all about how connected you are physically to those with power. How much face time do you have with leadership? How often do you see the executive team? How central – physically – are you to what is going on and those with the highest forms of power? This is the opposite of the adage, “out of sight, out of mind.” If your desk is conveniently located near the C-suite or situated on the way from the cafeteria to the bathroom, you likely have centrality power. If you are in the office with your boss and everyone else is remote, that would also give you location power.
- Operational (Also referred to as Centrality Power): Another type of centrality power is operational power, which more closely relates to organizational structure and connectivity to the processes of those with power. If your job in the mailroom is to hand deliver important mail to the executive team, if you are the liaison between important teams, or if you are the personal assistant or tech support to organization’s top leaders, you likely have this type of centrality power.
- Framing Power (Sometimes called Linguistic Power): If you have excellent command of language, you have easy access to linguistic power. If you are able to frame requests, statements, and questions in a way where you can influence the perspective of others, you have linguistic power.
- Agenda Power: If your role enables you to influence the agenda of what is discussed in meetings, to prioritize what is or isn’t accomplished, or to decide on resourcing for an organization, you have agenda power.
Knowing all of the different types of power you hold and paying attention to how they may be showing up in various settings can help you gain more self-awareness in your leadership and relationships.
Other awareness, sometimes referred to as social or interpersonal awareness, is the ability to perceive, understand, and sense the emotions, needs, goals, thoughts, behaviors, culture, and perspectives of others in various social settings. Other awareness involves recognizing and being attentive to the needs, beliefs, identities, and experiences of others in any given situation and then being able to act and communicate effectively from that place of awareness.
Because we are focusing on leadership in organizational settings, we’ll be paying the most attention to these types of invisible forces and dynamics between people:
- Relationships between individuals
- Trust between individuals, including how much they trust another person will do what they say they will do
- Psychological Safety: Psychological safety refers to being aware of how safe it is for people to speak up, take risks, be vulnerable, admit mistakes, and bring their true selves to any given relationship or workplace setting. According to Amy Edmondson, researcher and professor of leadership at Harvard who coined the phrase, “In a workplace, psychological safety is the belief that the environment is safe for interpersonal risk taking. People feel able to speak up when needed — with relevant ideas, questions, or concerns — without being shut down in a gratuitous way. Psychological safety is present when colleagues trust and respect each other and feel able, even obligated, to be candid.” Psychological safety is about inviting and encouraging team members to speak up with a concern or an idea instead of choosing silence.
- Power Dynamics: Power dynamics refer to the ways in which power, authority, and influence are distributed and used in social, organizational, or interpersonal contexts. Power dynamics can emerge from formal and informal types of power (see above) and how those types of power are used. Power dynamics can impact relationships, decision making, communication, leadership styles, organizational culture, diversity, inclusion, and feelings of safety and belonging. Understanding how power dynamics may be influencing the relationships, conversations, behaviors, interactions, decisions, or other types of functioning in the moment is critical in other awareness.
Other awareness is a key function of emotional intelligence, and it plays a crucial role in relationships, social interactions, teamwork, and leadership contexts of every kind since leadership is centered on relationships with others. By paying attention to, understanding, and valuing the needs and perspectives of others, we foster an environment where others feel heard, understood, supported, included, and cared for, which leads to stronger relationships, teams, and performance – and an organizational culture of mutual respect and care.
Systems awareness refers to the ability to understand and sense the complexity of various elements within a system, and how they work together – in an interconnected and interdependent way – to create outcomes. This is a big topic for a short article. For the purpose of this short overview article, let’s focus on just a few aspects of systems awareness that are most relevant for leaders in an organization:
- Zooming out: A leader’s ability to zoom out and consider the bigger picture and the system, organization, culture, or business as a whole, rather than focusing on just an individual component or decision.
- Interdependence: A leaders’ ability to recognize that a change to one part of a system can impact other parts and functions within the system, or even the entire system is critical. Downstream consequences must be considered in decision making and strategic planning.
- Power dynamics: In organizations, in addition to interpersonal power dynamics, there are invisible power dynamics that influence conversations, relationships, decisions, and culture within and around a system. Increasing one’s awareness of these invisible forces within and around oneself is essential for a leader, as is recognizing that most leaders are power holders and therefore have some power to shift culture.
- Complexity and uncertainty: Real-world modern systems are often complex and nonlinear. Leadership within today’s organizational systems requires embracing uncertainty and navigating the inherent unpredictability of complex systems.
With systems awareness, leaders can better analyze, navigate, and solve complex problems, and make wiser decisions, foreseeing broader implications. Leaders who have high systems awareness can often anticipate not just the immediate consequences, but also second- and third-order consequences, meaning they are able to step back and consider the impact downstream of a change or decision. Leaders who are adept in systems awareness also tend to be adaptable leaders, able to pivot as new learnings and insights emerge.
The Road to Awareness
The road to awareness includes all three levels of awareness. I believe self-awareness is the cornerstone of strong leadership, and so the journey begins with the self. If you are a leader, you must be aware of where you fall short and when you are off track if you are to close the gap between where you are and where your organization needs you to be. This is why blind spots are the enemy of leadership. If you don’t know what you don’t know, how will you close the competency gap?
Because you cannot fix a problem or deficiency you are unaware of, you must be proactive about and interested in discovering where you might be blind. Here is some further reading to guide you on the path to expanding the three levels of awareness for you as a leader:
- 10 Steps to Develop More Self-Awareness
- 11 Steps to Getting Honest Feedback as the Boss
- Feedback as a Gift
- Routine Reflection as a Leadership Development Tool
- 360 Feedback: How Do Others See you?
- 5 Leadership and Personality Assessments
- How Well Do You Receive Feedback?
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