Why Higher Execs Often Have Lower Self-Awareness

Self-awareness (or lack of it) in management is a subject that has long interested me. To this end, after listening to a recent, fascinating NPR conversation with Tasha Eurich on the topic, I interviewed her myself. Eurich holds a Ph. D., has written the book Insight and given a TED Talk on self-awareness.

I was curious to hear her thoughts and findings, and how they compared to my own intuitive feelings on the subject gained over decades of practical experience in management.

My own feelings can be summed up simply: Self awareness was often a difference maker in how effectively individuals managed others. Lack of self-awareness about how one’s management behavior was being perceived sometimes did substantive harm to employee morale and productivity.

When we got on the phone together, I started off by asking Ms. Eurich: “So how much of an issue is self-awareness in management?”

She laughed and answered, “How much time do you have?”

Power and self-awareness

We talked for a while and Eurich explained that yes, research shows that a relatively small number of people (around 10% to 15%) have what is generally considered a high level of self-awareness… and yes, this absence definitely does cause problems for management.  But what I found most intriguing was her conclusion that the higher we are in an organization, the less self-awareness we often have.

“The more power we attain, the less self-aware we tend to be,” was how she put it.

While at first this seems a little outrageous (shouldn’t our leaders be the most self-aware?), actually there are common-sense reasons for this phenomenon. She also referred me to an article she wrote for Harvard Business Review early this year that addresses the topic.

A critical point here is that the higher one resides in an organization, the more “yes-man” and “yes-woman” behavior start to show itself. “The more power you attain,” Eurich explained to me, “the harder it is for people to tell you the truth.”

She elaborates on this in her HBR piece. “One study of more than 3,600 leaders across a variety of roles and industries found that, relative to lower-level leaders, higher-level leaders more significantly over-valued their skills (compared with others’ perceptions). In fact, this pattern existed for 19 out of the 20 competencies the researchers measured, including emotional self-awareness, accurate self-assessment, empathy, trustworthiness, and leadership performance.”

Researchers cite two main reasons for the findings. “First, by virtue of their level, senior leaders simply have fewer people above them who can provide candid feedback,” Eurich writes. “Second, the more power a leader wields, the less comfortable people will be to give them constructive feedback, for fear it will hurt their careers.”

Yep, I’d seen this second point in action on many occasions. It reminded me of my first meeting with our Fortune 500 CEO early in my management career. A colleague going into the meeting with me (perhaps sensing some worrying individualistic tendencies) had one piece of counsel. “When he tells you to jump,” my colleague advised me, “you ask, ‘How high?'”

Naturally, these observations aren’t meant to be a blanket statement – leaders come in all shapes and sizes. Over the course of my career I knew brilliant senior leaders who were among the most perceptive individuals I ever had the privilege to work with. I also knew senior leaders who had about as much self-insight as a high-functioning Golden Retriever.

The power of meaningful feedback

What can senior leaders to counter these prevailing emotional headwinds? Some practical suggestions:

Actively seek out meaningful feedback. It’s important – and valuable.

Insist on candor from your direct reports. Get formal 360 degree feedback when possible, and make it clear you genuinely care about honest answers. (This means no negative consequences for truth tellers.)

Seek input from your board, or from peers outside your business, or colleagues from other organizations. So long as the feedback is insightful and thoughtful, doesn’t much matter where it comes from.

It’s worth “taking the rough with the smooth” and hearing things you may not want to.

An accurate perception of yourself is an invaluable career tool.

A version of this article first appeared at Forbes.com.

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