THE BLOG
02/11/2014 09:44 am ET | Updated Apr 12, 2014

Our Ego Is the Enemy of Self-Awareness

As a proponent of emotional intelligence, I'm often asked to explain this complex and sometimes-elusive concept. Simplifying emotional intelligence is a challenge, to be sure, but it helps to point out that self-awareness is the cornerstone of emotional intelligence. This is a deceptively simple explanation -- in truth, the complexities underlying self-awareness are equally vast.

Here's why:

• Psychological studies show that most of us believe ourselves to be above average in most skill sets. We believe we perform better, are better predictors of success, and are better at deciphering the truth, when compared with others. Clearly, we can't all be right!

• We will go to amazing lengths to protect our egos. This "it's them, not me" phenomenon is what Cordelia Fine, a psychologist at the Australian National University, calls our "vain brain."

• We misinterpret our success as being a direct result of our behaviors -- not something we've accomplished in spite of certain less-than-ideal traits.

• And finally, the truth hurts, as pointed out in an HBR article entitled "Non-Conscious Leadership":

1. Confronting our own non-conscious processes is painful and difficult. We keep things in our unconscious mind for a reason, and the reasons are generally not pretty.

2. Given the high price of genuine self-knowledge, the benefits don't seem substantial enough to warrant the pain.

Given these challenges, how can we develop self-awareness and use that knowledge to grow and improve as leaders?

• Look in the mirror -- challenge your own assumptions about your strengths and weaknesses. Have you carried your strengths too far and twisted them into a negative? Ask yourself these questions: What should I stop doing, start doing, keep doing?

• Seek objective feedback -- others' perspectives, not just your own. Seek it from those who report to you, those you report to, your colleagues, and a mentor or coach when possible. This can be formal or informal feedback. None of us likes to learn about our inadequacies or blind spots, but self-aware leaders see it as a gift, something they can use to learn and grow. "The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them," says Colin Powell. "They have either lost confidence that you can help them or concluded that you do not care."

• Do something with what you learn -- it's one thing to discover some hidden truths; it's another to actually act on them. Unlike learning data, our ability to change habits and behaviors takes a conscious and dedicated effort. This is why many would rather go about their merry way than spend the time and energy it takes to truly self-develop.

• Conduct your own Progress Report -- periodically ask others to give you feedback on your progress or, perhaps, lack thereof. What do they see that is working, not working, or even counterproductive to your new behaviors?

Having the spine and self-confidence to accept and even seek out feedback is hard. But your determination to be a better performer, leader or coach will far outweigh the short-term discomfort associated with confronting these hurdles.

And if you're successful thus far, just imagine how much more successful you can be if you challenge yourself and your assumptions, and seek to understand how others perceive you.