How to Improve Your Leadership Effectiveness Through Insight

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A Review of Dr. Tasha Eurich’s Book Insight

Is Introspection the Road to Self-Awareness?

What do you picture in your mind when you think of someone practicing “introspection”? A Buddhist hermit perched on a rock in the mountains?

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Maybe a hippie gazing at his navel?

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Or maybe a high-powered tech executive practicing mindfulness to get a competitive edge?

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Done correctly, these may be good ways to gain insight, but organizational psychologist, executive coach, and author Tasha Eurich found that we usually get the idea of useful introspection wrong. Her research found that most people who did regular introspection experienced more stress, were more depressed, were less satisfied with jobs and relationships, and generally felt less in control of their lives.

What is Self-Awareness?

In the leadership coaching I do for Maersk Training, we start with the concept of “Leading Self”. Before we can lead, we must master self-awareness and be authentic.  Tasha Eurich’s book Insight: The Surprising Truth About How Others See Us, How We See Ourselves, and Why the Answers Matter More Than We Think provides an in-depth and practical resource for gaining the insight that leads to success.

What do we mean by this trendy word “self-awareness”? Dr. Eurich attempts to nail down this nebulous concept with her own definition:

“Self-awareness: The will and the skill to understand who we are, including things like our values, patterns, and impact on others (internal self-awareness) and how others see us (external self-awareness).”

In chapter two she further breaks down self-awareness by presenting Seven Pillars of Insight:

  •  Values (guiding principles)
  •  Passions (activities that excite us)
  •  Aspirations (things we strive to achieve or be)
  •  Fit (the environment that keeps us happy and engaged)
  •  Patterns (our consistent thoughts, emotions, and behaviors)
  • Reactions (those thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that reveal our strengths and weaknesses)
  • Impact (the effect we have on others)

Insight’s Organization

Dr. Eurich divides her work into four parts:

  • “Roadblocks and Building Blocks”
    • Introduces the Seven Pillars of Insight
    • Discusses events that lead to new insights
    • Points out “blindspots” and cognitive errors preventing insight
    • Shows how the “cult of self” hinders insight
  • “Internal Self-Awareness: Myths and Truths”
    • Shows how most people ineffectively do introspection
    • Suggests how to properly introspect
    • Gives techniques to escape self-destructive rumination
    • Suggest self-awareness tools
  • “External Self-Awareness: Myths and Truths”
    • Discusses the difficulties in getting honest feedback
    • Suggests tools for gathering useful feedback
    • Describes four types of feedback
    • Provides tools for properly responding to surprising or difficult feedback
  • The Bigger Picture
    • Applies insight on an organizational/collective level
    • Provides tools for building self-aware teams
    • Suggests methods for dealing with people who are not self-aware

The book flows well and is very well-organized, with bullet summaries at the end of each chapter, and an extensive appendix full of free questionnaires and other tools to put the book’s principles into practice. Although it cites over 400 scientific studies, books, and articles, it’s written for ordinary people rather than the academic.

How Did Tasha Get Insight into Insight?

The trouble with studies attempting to understand self-awareness is that they often rely on self-reporting, and most of us (about 95% according to Eurich’s own survey) think that we’re already self-aware. Dr. Eurich believes that the true figure of self-aware people is considerably less than 95%. She led a research team to find a more in-depth method to find a select group of people with two useful criteria for making the research applicable for improving self-awareness:

  1. People who were highly self-aware, but …
  2. …who had not started out that way.

She and her team collected 50 “self-awareness unicorns” by conducting a large survey which required both self-reporting and confirmation by ratings from at least one person who knew the person well. She then conducted in-depth interviews with these subjects to discover their secret to transformation. The combination of quantitative surveys and qualitative interviews strengthens the reliability of her insights and abundant recommendations.

Understanding Internal and External Self-Awareness

One of the most important points of Dr. Eurich’s book is to understand the importance of both internal and external self-awareness. Even if navel-gazing introspection worked (which it often doesn’t), we still need to be aware of the reactions that our behaviors cause and how they impact others. She recommends a method called “Zoom In, Zoom Out” developed by psychologist Richard Weissbourd. In exchanges with others, especially when emotions run high, it’s helpful to zoom in on our own perspective to see what things are influencing our current behavior (i.e. hunger, tiredness, previous bad experience, etc.). Then we zoom out to walk in the other person’s shoes–looking at the issue from her perspective.

Though not mentioned in Eurich’s book, I recently listened to a podcast interviewing author and philosopher Gregg Krech, whose Naikan Therapy poses three “life-changing questions” that can take us a long way on the journey to understanding our impact on others. Krech’s book Naikan: Gratitude, Grace, and the Japanese Art of Self-Reflection elaborates on how to get the most out of asking

  • What have I received from (person x)?
  • What have I given to (person x)?
  • What troubles and difficulties have I caused to (person x)?

Naikan literally means “looking inside”. This Buddhist and scientific psychology-inspired method increases insight by examining connections to others. Asking those simple questions on a regular basis can lead to deep discoveries about our own conduct and ways to improve our relationships.  

Start With What, Not Why

In her TED talk, with over 3 million views, Dr. Eurich emphasizes avoiding the rabbit hole of asking “why” things happen. “Why did I not get that promotion?”. “Why did she not agree to a second date?”. “Why do I feel so upset with this guy?”. Instead, she found that the “unicorns” focused on more concrete and specific “what” questions. “What can I do to increase my chances to make the next promotion?” “What can I do to make myself more attractive and likeable on dates?” “What are the behaviors or ideas that trigger my negative reactions?”

Space for Mindfulness

Even if most people don’t get introspection right, because they’re too self-focused or overly analytical, or sink into self-destructive rumination, Dr. Eurich still espouses the importance of Mindfulness in developing self-awareness. She defines mindfulness as “simply noticing what we’re thinking, feeling, and doing without judgment or reaction.” Mindfulness pays attention to the right things, and does the right things with the information. The book offers several “non-meditative mindfulness tools”, including reframing, and comparing and contrasting. I think the most helpful might be some version of her daily check-in, which is a short review of lessons learned over the day.

As a pilot of the multi-crew tanker aircraft, I would often have long flights that included hours of pre-flight planning and briefings. As tired as my crew was at the end of a long day, we never skipped our “debrief” session to review what went well, what could have gone better, and what needed to be fixed before the next flight. Such reviews were the key to improving our crew’s performance and safety. If we “mindlessly” went home and showed up for the next flight without thoughtfully considering lessons learned, we would be well below our potential for improvement. Mindfully considering our actions on a regular basis, drawing out lessons with action items to reach our next level of performance, builds internal self-awareness.

Thanks for the Feedback

Insight’s third part, External Self-Awareness: Myths and Truths, focuses on how to get candid feedback, and what to do with it once we get it. Soliciting straightforward, useful feedback is not an easy thing. The people closest to us, and even relative strangers, are probably reluctant to say anything critical, in fear of creating tension. At the same time, we’re often not excited to go and get negative feedback, or “constructive criticism”. Dr. Eurich calls this the “Ostrich Trinity”:

  • I don’t need to ask for feedback
  • I shouldn’t ask for feedback
  • I don’t want to ask for feedback

In the Leading Maersk program in which I’m currently coaching, a key element of learning for the participants comes from a 360 Degree Feedback, which is the first tool recommended by Eurich for getting feedback. This evaluation from peers, colleagues, subordinates, and one or more layer of bosses is widely used in modern organizations, and for good reason. The Leading Maersk participants found insights into their strengths and weaknesses that were often surprising and helpful for planning self-improvement.

Dr. Eurich also offers her own RIGHT Feedback Process as another self-awareness tool. To get the most effective results, this process looks for the right people, who we ask the right questions, using the right process to “get the kind of valuable information that leads to actionable insight.” The right people are “loving critics:  people who will be honest with us while still having our best interests at heart.” The right questions are ones that are specific, so that they can lead to action. The right process consists of the measurable actions one takes in response to feedback.

Dr. Eurich prescribes a “3R Model” for getting the most from feedback: receiving, reflecting on, and responding to feedback. Reflecting on the feedback involves asking three questions:

  • Do I understand the feedback?
  • How will it affect my long-term success and well-being?
  • Do I want to act on the feedback, and if so, how?

The last question points out that not all feedback is worth responding to. Sensitive to detrimental effects of negative feedback, Dr. Eurich advises the reader to keep a positive attitude with self-affirming tools.

While Insight convinces of the importance of feedback and offer a few tools, authors Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen provide a much more in-depth resource for making the most of feedback in developing external self-awareness. In their work (with an even longer subtitle!), Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well *even when it is off base, unfair, poorly delivered, and, frankly, you’re not in the mood, the authors dive into triggers that block feedback (Truth, Relationship, and Identity Triggers), and then give detailed advice on navigating feedback conversations with actionable results.

Beyond Self-Awareness to Collective-Awareness

Insight’s final part steps beyond Dr. Eurich’s self-awareness research, apparently relying more on her role as the principal of a “boutique executive development firm”. Although the section feels a bit like a non sequitir, perhaps added on to make it more appealing in the business book section, she nonetheless provides insight to leading teams with useful material for team activities. Eurich proposes “Five Cornerstones of Collective Insight” that a “self-aware team” needs to address:

  • The collective objectives
  • Measurement of progress to the objectives
  • Awareness of the means-the process– by which they’re getting to the objectives
  • Awareness of the assumptions being made about the business and environment and their match with reality
  • Understanding of the individual contributions to the team’s performance

To build these cornerstones, Eurich proposes “Three Building Blocks”:

  • A leader who models the way
  • Psychological safety
  • An ongoing commitment and process to remain self-aware

The author pulls from her executive coaching experience to provide multiple examples of exercises and activities that she runs to construct the building blocks, all with consultant-speak titles such as “Leader Feedback Process”, “Peer Pirate”, “Candor Challenge”, “Team Feedback Exchange” and “Accountability Conversations”.

Delusions of Grandeur

Chapter 10 comes like an afterthought, making a tangentially-related but helpful point on dealing with “delusional” people–those people we meet who seem completely divorced from reality because of their lack of self-awareness. Dr. Eurich classifies the unaware individuals into three categories: the “Lost Cause”, the “Aware Don’t Care”, and the “Nudgable” (perhaps an oblique reference to Richard Thaler’s book Nudge”). She then suggests ways to deal with each of the categories, by accepting what can’t be changed, controlling our own reactions, and “confronting with compassion”. At page 243, the body of the book is thus finished. The remaining 76 pages include “The 7-Day Insight Challenge”, followed by 15 self-assessment questionnaires and resources.

The Meta-Skill of Self-Awareness

Insights is one of the more practical self-help/leadership/team development books that I’ve read. It can spark a thoughtful self-conversation for the reader. It’s certainly helpful to realize that not all “introspection” is worthwhile, and that the path to self-awareness doesn’t require climbing up to mountain monasteries or spending hours in cellphone-free silence. The breakdown into internal and external self-awareness helps one focus and balance. If you’re interested in developing your human performance skills, including the skill of leading self and others, self-awareness is a meta-skill that can help in this and other areas of your life. I recommend pondering over this book as part of your journey.

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