Ilana Meskin
Productivity through People

This Rosh HaShana: A Window into Self-Development

As we begin the new year, it’s our annual moment to pause, reflect and think about how to continue becoming the person we would most like to be. What’s missing that could enhance our growth and effectiveness as a person, as an employee…and especially as a leader if you manage others? 

I’m guessing the first answers that come to mind are things like more time…more sleep…more money. Well, all true, but are for others to post and write about.

As an organizational coach for much of my career, I think of something else that’s lacking for many of us that could greatly enhance our personal and professional lives. What is often missing or insufficient is greater self-awareness.  It is not a nice-to-have, feel good thing. Without it, we are nowhere in terms of enhancing growth and effectiveness. In fact, we are operating blind. Much has also been written making the connection between knowing oneself , emotional intelligence and excellent leadership

We have several levels of awareness – perhaps best articulated in 1955 as the Johari window, named after the psychologists who invented it, Jo Luft and Harrington Ingham. It is a graphic model of interpersonal awareness between oneself and others.  Using the standard 2 by 2 set of four quadrants along two axes: Known to YOU, or Known to OTHERS, representing the following four possible combinations:

  • Open or Public Space: things known to yourself and known to others. No surprises here, sometimes called the “arena.”
  • Hidden or Facade Area: things known to you but unknown to others. This is generally private information that you keep to yourself, which can be moved to the Open Space quadrant by sharing or self-disclosure as you choose. Particularly in transition or new environments, it can be instructive to tell others more about yourself.
  • Unknown Area: Things unknown to you and unknown to others. This is basically subconscious but can be developed by self-discovery, observation, and experimentation (ie: no one, including yourself, had a clue you were good at X”).
  • Blind Spot: Unknown to you but known to others.  This is the major AHA stuff.     You are at a major disadvantage until you learn how to approach this quadrant.

Your ability to become a more effective person, employee, or leader, depends on finding out what others know about you but you do not know about yourself. Remember the tale of the emperor’s new clothes? Do you know how you are perceived?  

So if accurate self-assessment is so important to self-development, why don’t we often work on becoming more self-aware?  Mainly because it’s not easy. 

Although feedback is a great gift, there are multiple reasons why it’s so hard to gain more awareness of our blind spots, to name a few:   

  • Most people don’t know how to give quality feedback. The very term feedback is usually associated with a negative experience, and powerful sense of being criticized. Since the person giving the feedback is typically as uncomfortable as the receiver, what is provided is vague, unspecific, or not behavioral – and therefore simply not helpful (the good news is that providing useful feedback is a skill that can be learned!).
  • Typically, people in leadership roles receive less and less information about how they are perceived as they become more senior. Frustratingly, this is when it becomes even more essential. The reason is rather self-evident – people are concerned about the consequences of speaking truth to power. 
  • Most feedback is unsolicited and arrives painfully. It comes in infrequent performance appraisals, or in disciplinary mode after an “incident” for which a special meeting was scheduled.

With all these hurdles, it is challenging to gain insight into our blind spots. My new year’s suggestion for you comes with a warning: it may sound easy but it’s not.

You must ASK: the right people, in the right way, and accept what you hear in the right way.  

Ask the right people: people who work with you on a regular and frequent basis, who are committed to your success, want to support you, and can tell the truth.  

Ask the right way: Don’t focus on the past – be future oriented.  Don’t ask about yourself as a person (“how do you feel about me?” You’re probably queasy just thinking about asking that) Rather, be behavioral and specific. This approach creates distance from negative feedback experiences.  

Try this: “You work with me alot, and I’m trying hard to get a better handle on how I’m perceived, and what I can do better (collaborate/develop/improve/gain awareness). Would you be open to sharing with me one suggestion for what I might do differently in the future? Or going forward?” 

Marshall Goldsmith, arguably the most preeminent executive coach in the world today, calls this “feedforward” instead of feedback.   Because the future can be changed, it has a chance of being viewed as positive and developmental.  It creates a far greater comfort zone for someone to support you by steering clear of pointing out your wrongs or criticizing the past.   It is also more efficient and not tends not to be taken as personally.  There is no detailed rehash of what happened – just a concrete suggestion.

Accept what you hear the right way: Manage your reaction in your head. By definition, there will be surprises.  It is considered perfectly normal when hearing blind spots to cycle first through these three reactions in this order: shock, anger, rejection.  Play these out in your mind only.  Smile. Just say thank you.   You are lucky to have someone who cares enough about your success to take the risk of being truthful.  If you blow this part, you will blow any future opportunity for candor with this person. Ever.

As Goldsmith suggests in his best-seller What Got You Here Won’t Get You There This is the simple wisdom of the Johari window…as human beings we almost always suffer from the disconnect between the self we think we are and the self that the rest of the world sees in us. If we can stop, listen, and think about what others are seeing in us, we have a great opportunity. We can compare the self that we want to be with the self that we are presenting to the rest of the world. We can then begin to make the real changes that are needed to close the gap between our stated values and our actual behavior.”

May your New Year be filled with joy, health, and development, enriched by greater self-awareness. Shana Tova.

About the Author
Ilana Meskin has over 30 years of experience helping organizations become more effective through people management practices. She “grew up” in two Fortune 500 companies, with deep and diverse experience in Human Resources and Organizational Development. She left corporate life a decade ago when her daughter made aliyah, and founded her consulting practice. She shuttles between Los Angeles and Jerusalem to work and play - with her grandchildren!
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