Organizational Self-Awareness and Learning

Self-awareness is a critical life and leadership skill that means different things to different people. I used to think that it had to do with just being aware of my thoughts and my tendency to think a certain way.  I believed, therefore, that I had high self-awareness.  However, self-awareness also includes having some knowledge of your subconscious choices, viewpoints, biases, and strengths.  For example, why do I gravitate to certain choices or beliefs?  Are those really the right behaviors and perspectives?   How do those actions and viewpoints affect others?

Taking the time to reflect on these questions and internalize feedback – both positive and negative, formal and informal – is called self-reflective awareness (SRA).  Failure to periodically assess and re-evaluate means I’m operating more on habit than any kind of conscious decision.  A recent blog by Henriques does an excellent job of breaking down this self-reflective process, and describes it as metacognition.  Personally, I find that a regular reflective practice is important in sustaining my self-awareness as I and the environment evolve over time.

The same is true for organizations.  Like people, organizations have a history that influences their self- and world-view, strengths, weaknesses, blind spots, preferences and biases.  Organizations have their own “mental processes” that lead to learning and decision-making:  surveys, informal feedback, organizational metrics, etc.   Organizations that consider a narrow set of data, and fail to reflect and seriously consider feedback – both internally and externally, formal and informal – are just going through the motions of learning and growth.    Like Henriques’ student example, an organization with low self-reflective awareness (SRA) is likely to have a superficial understanding of how to solve problems and blame their failures or shortcomings on external or isolated factors. An organization that has high SRA is more likely to take a thoughtful and comprehensive approach to problem solving and growth and has the courage to face some hard truths.

What would organizational SRA look like?  We can start by looking at low SRA activities, which includes crisis management as standard operating procedure, incremental strategic plans that don’t have a clear vision, a culture of punishing and problem-finding instead of nurturing success and growth, and prioritizing thoughtless organizational metrics that reflect a limited view of organizational success.  Low SRA organizations will have a disconnect between their mission and stated brand, and their actual performance.  For example, some organizations may claim to value diversity, customers or their employees, but the numbers and culture may say otherwise.  The organization may choose to ignore that disconnect by excluding such measures in their data collection, write off dissatisfied customers and employees as anomalies, and rationalize problems as localized, but their stakeholders will notice.

A high organizational SRA will have strong alignment in mission, values, brand and their products and output.  It will have an authentic vision for its future with priorities, policies, procedures and practices are aligned across the organization.  It will regularly reflect as a whole through its strategic planning process and integrate outcomes and feedback to learn and improve.  For example, unpleasant surprises, such as under-performing sales, lawsuits, poor feedback, or a key employee quitting unexpectedly, are taken seriously.  The organization learns from that setback, asking hard questions and facing difficult truths.  It examines gaps between its mission and behavior, and has the courage to listen deeply to tough feedback.  It encourages individuals to take risks and learn from the failures instead of punishing them.  It examines best practices, employs them, and then may even try to raise the bar.  It has leaders who have high SRA, and who encourage SRA in others.

What kind of organization do you work for?  What kind would you rather work for?  It’s easy to see that a high SRA organization will attract and keep the best talent.  How are you contributing to your organization’s SRA and your own?

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