How Greater Self-Awareness Drives Career Success

When you think of the qualities required for a successful career as an attorney, what comes to mind? Intelligence? Knowledge? Competency? Ambition? Absolutely. But there’s a crucial skill that many people overlook — and it may well be the skill standing in the way of your professional relationships or your next promotion.

Consider this scenario: you’re a senior-level associate who consistently and efficiently produces excellent work product, seems to get along with everyone and aptly manages both up and down. But you were passed over for a promotion during the latest review cycle.

Determined to make partner by the end of this year, you ask your supervisor what you need to improve to earn the promotion next year. Your writing? No. Oral advocacy skills? No. Negotiation skills? No. Research? No.

The answer? Your workplace behaviors.

What?! Everyone loves working with you! Well, at least, that’s the impression you’ve been given. Then your supervisor tells you that your casual behaviors sometimes make colleagues uncomfortable, subordinates sometimes perceive you as condescending and managers sometimes feel you lack respect for them.

So, what now? How should you respond to this newly learned information or avoid being blindsided by a similar situation in the future? We suggest that you consider improving your self-awareness. Don’t wait for unwelcome revelations to nudge you into action. Proactively increase your self-awareness now, and use it to gain and act on insights to improve your workplace relationships, leadership skills and career success.

Over the last several years, self-awareness has become a hot topic in the business world. Studies have shown that increased self-awareness leads to earning more respect in the workplace, producing better work (perhaps even more efficiently) and more readily earning promotions.

Writers on the topic discuss self-awareness as both an internal and external process; that is, we can employ two tools to foster increased self-awareness: self-assessing and getting feedback from others.

Increasing self-awareness through self-assessment

Self-assessment, at its most simple, is taking note of who you are —your values, beliefs, purpose — and then considering how your behaviors are affected by those character traits. To do this, you might find it useful to set aside a short period of time, even just a few minutes, at the end of each day or week for self-reflection.

Ask yourself what went well and where you struggled, and think about how your reactions in those moments affected your behavior and how it may have affected others. It may also be helpful to read online articles or books on raising self-awareness and to take the time to incorporate their suggestions for increasing your self-awareness.

Another effective way to self-assess is to work with a coach. The dialogue you develop with your coach can be tremendously useful in helping you to realize new perspectives and to learn tools for reflection, which, in turn, can hone your self-awareness skills.

In our executive coaching at Beard Strategies, for example, we help clients become more self-aware by identifying workplace behaviors that support their, or others’, success or, conversely, impede it. During sessions, we ask questions like:

  • What successes/challenges did you have this past week?
  • What did you say/do that led to the success?
  • What did you say/do when faced with the challenge? Did you overcome it?
  • How do you think your subordinate/manager perceived your words/action/tone? What makes you think that way?
  • What could you do differently next time to be more successful/productive/efficient?

Through these types of questions, we lead clients into deeper thinking about their words, tones, actions and motivations. They gain insight into key questions —What made them choose those words? What do they think their tone/body language shows to the listener? — and discover practical ways to make adjustments that improve their professional relationships.

Increasing self-awareness through external feedback

The other side of the coin when improving self-awareness is to seek external feedback. Direct reflection from others is an invaluable tool in truly understanding how others perceive you and how your actions are affecting your colleagues.

Just like you ask for feedback on your work — what your supervisor thought of the brief you wrote, how well you argued an issue at a hearing, how aptly you handled a difficult call with a client — ask for feedback on your behaviors.

It may make you uncomfortable, especially at first. But getting feedback in all areas of your work — whether about your legal skills or how you communicate — can only help you grow. However slight your positive behavioral changes are based on this feedback, your performance will rise in the eyes of others, which can prove beneficial for your career.

Ask a trusted colleague, subordinate or supervisor for feedback; to ensure it’s valuable feedback, make sure what you’re asking for is specific. Ask questions such as:

  • Can you give me an example of when my behavior made you or others uncomfortable?
  • Can you tell me about a time when I appeared to act dismissively toward you or someone else?
  • What have you seen or heard that makes managers perceive that I lack respect for them?
  • What positive behaviors do you see from me that I could do more of?

By focusing on and improving potentially harmful behaviors — as well as strengthening and building on positive behaviors — the rewards you reap could be significant:

  • Improving your communication methods during meetings can result in less confusion or wasted time for you and your colleagues when you’re delegating or project planning.
  • Improving your management skills can result in properly tailoring the assignments you delegate for more efficient workflow and productivity.
  • Improving your social skills can result in your earning greater respect from colleagues and supervisors, leading to greater responsibilities and faster promotions.

As attorneys, we learn a lot of things in law school, but one thing they don’t teach in the classroom is how to reflect on your own behaviors and motivations, seek and integrate feedback from others and hone a strong sense of self-awareness that breeds excellent interpersonal skills. It’s up to each of us to develop these skills throughout our careers — and if you’ve set your sights on your next important promotion or career milestone, self-awareness may well be the skill that will carry you to that success.