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?

Fear: Friend or Foe?

fear

Caving to fear

“I’m not sure I want to do that,” “I’m not ready for that,” ”I just need to do it this way,” “It’s not so bad.”

World: meet my unacknowledged fear.

My unacknowledged fear wears a clever mask so I can hide it from myself.  I camouflage it because I’m not ready to recognize it, much less deal with it.

There’s nothing wrong with that fear.  Everyone has fear.  Fear has many good qualities, like preventing you from doing something dangerous or rash.  I would’ve driven my adorable, sporty 2-door BMW coupe at 85 mph (it liked that speed) all the time, but fear required a safer speed.  Fear has kept me safe and sound, still united with my driver’s license to this day.

But sometimes fear has just prevented me from doing the right thing, taking good care of myself, or following my heart or my dreams.   Whether starting or changing something in my life, those scary decisions involved change, and therefore risk. It’s not always easy to tell when I’m being wise (“Look before you leap”) or stuck (“Strike while the iron is hot”). How do you tell when fear is helping versus hurting you?

Take relationships, for example.  All relationships, even good ones, go through rough spells.  You may have wondered during those times whether to ask for different behavior, or even a complete change like breaking up.  It can be a scary decision, especially if you’re in love, have invested a long time with your partner, have children or property together, or if you’re dependent on him/her.  What if the relationship is salvageable?  What if this is the love of my life?  What if I can’t find a job or a new partner afterwards?  What if I ruin the lives of my children?

There are no easy answers to these questions, but they can be thoroughly evaluated with hard work, honesty, courage and forgiveness.  If you wonder if your relationship is salvageable, then do everything you can to salvage it.  Salvage may involve couples counseling, which when done well, will require you to look at yourself honestly to determine what role you are playing in your troubled relationship.   Dependence also may require that you look inside to determine why you became dependent and accept the consequences of becoming independent.  Making sure your kids are OK likewise means being honest with yourself as to what they will need, financially, psychologically, and emotionally, and providing that to them.  For example, it might feel really good to blame or punish your partner, and much easier than taking responsibility for your role, but your children will pay the price for that toxicity and vindictiveness, not to mention your unresolved issues.

Each of these scenarios involves a tough decision, and difficult, sometimes scary action. If you are not ready to do the right thing in the right way, then maybe fear is standing in your way.   If so, then you have a choice.  Which is more important, my relationship/children/quality of life/dignity or protecting myself from my own fear?

The same sort of reflection may be required for starting something new, like a new relationship, a move to a new state or city, or a new job.  For example, when I finished school, I had a choice as to whether to pursue what I felt was my challenging, impossible dream job, or the safer, less risky good job.  Of course, at the time, I wasn’t really identifying my fear for what it was.  It was disguised as issues about money, job duties, or lifestyle.  I might’ve fooled my friends but a nagging part of me wasn’t buying it.

I realized that fear of failure was the only thing standing in my way of doing what my heart was telling me to do.  It boiled down to this.  Which was more important to me, avoiding failure or pursuing my dream job?

It was a defining moment. I decided I could not let fear chart my course in life.  Instead, I should construct my life based on my desires and realistic appraisal of the likely consequences of making a mistake.  What was the worst possible outcome?  I would’ve had to find a new job and admit I couldn’t do it, a small price to pay for pursuing my dreams.  In contrast, choosing fear would’ve meant I quit before I even started.  That’s not the behavior of a successful, self-actualized person.  In addition, by choosing fear, I would forever have had to live with the regret of not believing in myself when I was given that chance.

“Follow your bliss”  – Joseph Campbell

In either case, whether choosing something new or choosing change, unacknowledged fear can tip the scales in ways that may cause us to unintentionally make choices that are not true to our principles or heart’s desires.  It takes wisdom, courage, and even forgiveness to acknowledge the fear, and to honestly and realistically incorporate it into our decision-making.  Your fear can either be your voice of reason or an excuse to not take risks.  Use it wisely.  You are its master, not its slave.