Self-awareness

I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of self-awareness at home and as part of team. A month or so ago, I spoke at the last JSCONF about the wild n’ crazy journey the past five years has been. In the talk, I sketched out a lot of the great things I learned from reading about management and humans, specifically the highlighting book Emotional Intelligence 2.0. It seems I’m on a mission to get a lot of people to read it. It might appear corny and have a lot of drawn out content, but the basic ideas have stuck with me.

Emotional Intelligence (EQ) breaks down into four quadrants, the starting point being self-awareness. Self-awareness (or the absence of) is particularly interesting to me as I’ve always been someone who “wears their emotions on their sleeves”. This can be a really positive thing when I’m excited and passionate about something, but also can drag the people around me down into a burning inferno when I’m not. Being aware of the lack of self-awareness in myself and in the people around me put me on the path to improving.

The book shows a bunch of case studies of all of the different aspects of EQ and you start to get a sense of the things that you or someone you know does that fit into these categories. Instead of trying to paraphrase, here are some REAL WORLD scenarios from the past couple of years.

Steam coming out my ears

“It’s a pretty straightforward plan”.

I was trying to explain to my boss that we had to delay a bunch of new feature work and spend some time fixing some underlying problems instead. They seemed to be listening.

“We have to just buckle down and fix X and Y no matter what or we’re not going to get anything done”

“OK, makes sense”, they said.

Forty-five minutes later, we were sitting in the conference room with the team that was about to get their plans changed. I introduced the general concepts, “We’re not going to do exactly what we thought, but we think this is a good plan” and then passed the baton to my boss. Instead of outlining the plan we just agreed on, they started outlining a completely opposite plan; one that completely negated the good faith I had carved out with the team and set them on a completely different course.

The whole team looked at me, stunned. Only much later did I realize that I had steam coming out of my ears. I was controlled enough to not break into fisticuffs in the moment, but not self-aware enough to realize that everyone in the room knew exactly what I was thinking.

A couple years later, confronted with a similar situation, but a new ability to tap into “what I’m actually feeling” I’m able to open my mouth and express my feelings in a constructive way. The end result isn’t perfect, but its 100000x better than the raw and clouded emotion that was making me want to flip tables.

The point isn’t to not be angry — it’s about understanding the frustration and not letting it hurt the people around you. This is something I’m still working on every day (especially as the father of of a two year old) and I have a million other examples of ways I’ve hurt people, relationships, or work and remained unaware until it was too late.

We’re doing great

A couple of months ago I was approached by a developer who was part of a growing medium sized team. He had seen a talk I gave about teams and growth (and the failures there of) and was seeing some of the same problems I had faced. Specifically, there was a lot of churn and a lack of clarity around goals and how he, as a member of the team, could effectively contribute. He was excited about having me come in and give some advice or mentorship to the team, so we ended up sitting down with himself and the CTO. Immediately, I sensed something was off, the CTO started drilling me as if I was applying for a developer job. When he asked “Well, what are you looking for?” I explained what my current work is, doing high level consulting for teams. I gently let them know that I heard that there was potential for me to bring my experience to bear in helping them grow, structure, and plan. The response was longer but can be summed up as “We’re doing great.” Instead of listing the problems that they had been having (as I had heard them from a team mate) I heard a rattling off of accomplishments of scale, etc.

Personally, I wasn’t angry, though I knew I could help if given the chance. The clear lack of self-awareness as a leader translated into a lack of organizational awareness that could open them up for critical feedback and improvement.

How it’s affecting me today

These two cases seem unrelated but really stem from the same inability to reflect on our own emotions and behavior. The latter scenario has especially been on my mind lately, as I work to get my consulting business off the ground. I’m lucky to have found and worked with some great clients so far, but I know I’m not doing as much as I could or reaching the companies that really need help. I’m sure part of it is marketing and “getting the word out”, but I’ve come to realize that my market is smaller than I previously thought.

If you think of it like a Venn diagram, you can see the problem. With the original and naive opinion that “There are a lot of companies that could use my help!” the market is huge. The problem is the second case above was not a single occurrence. The shortage of awareness in leadership is a giant blind spot that prevents me from getting in the door. I’d be a fool if I thought the only reason I don’t get hired is because the other people aren’t self-aware enough; Of course there are other reasons. However, the difference between the leaders of the teams I have gotten the chance to work with and those that are “doing great” is stark in terms of the awareness of their problems and the ability to get better by seeking help.

I haven’t found a solution for this yet. Maybe if I just keep writing and pushing these books, some leaders will awake into self-awareness (picturing this like Neo waking up outside of the Matrix) and the middle of that diagram will grow.

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