I’ve been delivering a shiny new speech about giving feedback. It’s full of unconventional ideas and new ways of thinking about how to use feedback more effectively. The best part of rolling out a new keynote is hearing everyone’s questions, which helps me understand the challenges of implementing the techniques. So, when three audience members asked about dealing with someone with low self-awareness, I knew I had to prioritize it for a post.

Are People Self-Aware?

Short answer: No.

Most of us are less self-aware than we think. Tasha Eurich and her lab conducted a multi-year study and found that 95% of people believe they are self-aware about how they’re perceived, but only 10-15% are. Concerningly, Eurich has also demonstrated that the lack of self-awareness is higher among people with more power, the ones whose cluelessness can do more damage.

Even for average employees, low self-awareness has profound effects. In a Fortune 10 company study, Dierdorff and Rubin found that teams with members who were less self-aware made worse decisions, engaged in less coordination, and showed less conflict management. If the team had individuals who over-rated their contributions, their success rate was half that of other teams.

Signs Someone Has Low Self-Awareness

How do you know you’re dealing with a colleague with low self-awareness? There are a few telltale signs to watch for:

  • They don’t adapt their behavior. People who lack self-awareness use the same approach repeatedly without tailoring it to different individuals or modifying it based on the results.
  • They’re surprised by people’s reactions. Low self-awareness individuals are more focused on their intent than the impact of their behavior on others. So, when you get frustrated, angry, or defensive about their behavior, you probably catch them off guard.
  • They get defensive about feedback. People who are aware of their faults often respond to negative feedback with a groan or an apology, “That is my Achilles heel,” or “Sorry, did I do that again??” If your feedback triggers a more emotional reaction, they likely had no clue what was happening.
  • They overestimate their contributions. When you’re not tuned in to the impact of your behavior, it’s easy to overstate the positive impact you’re making. Low self-awareness colleagues often think they’re more of a gift to the team than they are.
  • They underestimate the damage they cause. On the flip side, people with poor self-awareness also underplay the negative impact of their behavior.

Dealing with a Person Who Isn’t Self-aware

There’s no guaranteed way to enhance someone’s self-awareness, but you can try one of these approaches.

Understand How They Would Like to Be Perceived

Rather than confronting someone with evidence that they’re perceived poorly, why not ask how they’d like to be perceived? For example, you can ask questions like, “How would you like to be thought of by your peers?” “What brand are you nurturing with your clients?” “How would you like people to feel when they receive your email?”

Once you know what they’re working toward, you can provide your perspective on what might help them have the desired impact. For example, “If you’d like people to feel motivated after they read your email, you might revisit your language about our current numbers. I felt demoralized after reading that we still have a $2 million gap to make up. How could you reframe a message like this so it feels doable?”

Use Processes to Support Effective Behaviors

Given that most of us lack self-awareness, your team can do a ground rules exercise where you talk about how your behavior impacts one another. For example, you can speak generically about how everyone will show up or choose a specific goal and articulate the desired and undesired behaviors. For instance, you could talk about candor and ask everyone to contribute to a list of ways that their behavior supports candor and a second set of behaviors that detract from it.

Once you’ve got your agreements, negotiate with one another about what you’ll do if someone behaves contrary to what you’ve committed. Is there a code word you can use to call out transgressions gently? Agreeing to the approach in advance will minimize defensiveness when the time comes to address troubling behavior.

Consider Alternate Explanations

Unaware or Not Onside?

It’s worth taking a moment to consider whether the person you’re accusing of being unaware is fully aware but annoying you because they refuse to agree or acquiesce to your way of viewing the world. In this case, I’m asking you to do the uncomfortable—to consider whether it might be you who needs greater self-awareness. I know it’s not nice, but I’m not here to be nice; I’m here to help you get the team you deserve, which might require some discomfiting growth.

Unaware or Just Despicable?

Sometimes you assume that someone who leaves a dent in others has low self-awareness when they’re just a jerk. But unfortunately, some people are well aware of the consequences and collateral damage of their behavior and choose to continue. For some, it might even get them the desired results (at least in the short term). I’ll return to the case of the malicious person in a future post.

Additional Resources

Try Giving Feedback to a Leader With Low Self-Awareness

In the mirror: Are you competing when you should be cooperating?

How self-aware are you?