Before my first undercover assignment, I was sent back to the Behavioral Science Unit at the FBI Academy for a series of psychological tests to determine my level of self-awareness. I was disappointed because I expected to learn how to scissor-kick in high heels to take down a guy twice my size. At least, that’s how movies portray it. Alas, not for the first time did I learn that movies are entertainment with a tenuous grasp on reality.
FBI Headquarters understood that self-awareness enables agents to predict their response when confronted with an unexpected situation that can accompany undercover work. This process taught me I would not be a good candidate for long-term, deep-cover assignments. I fall into the category of overachiever, and tools like the Enneagram and Myers-Briggs personality tests confirmed that I need to be around people because I consistently need to perform. You can’t put a personality like mine into a lonely place and expect them to be happy or productive.
I didn’t know it before, but self-awareness was necessary to become a successful undercover agent. Leaders in today’s world ask questions like mine: Do I need to become more self-aware to be effective? How will it help me make a more significant impact?
Self-knowledge is the first step in developing emotional intelligence. Every aspect of your life requires you to make decisions, and success in today’s world means you’re willing to develop the emotional intelligence to make good decisions that will positively impact yourself and those around you.
Self-awareness makes good decisions easier because it allows you to understand your needs, fears, desires and habits — everything that makes you tick as a unique human being. It also strengthens your relationship with the most crucial person in your life: you!
Like it or not, the more you know about yourself, the better and faster you can adapt to the changes that happen in business and life. Change is inevitable, and the better you can handle it, the quicker you’ll land on your feet and move on. Self-awareness is not self-absorption. Self-awareness assumes that you’ll collect information and insights about yourself so you can make improvements.
A high degree of self-awareness requires a willingness to tolerate the discomfort of focusing on feelings that may be negative. It can take mental toughness to move through that discomfort because the point is to push through and not wallow in it.
Here is how authentic leaders make a more significant impact with self-awareness:
1. Eliminate inconsistency
There is enough ego in all of us to produce a flattering self-image that might not be congruent with how others see us. How we see ourselves is often an illusion, and it can be dangerous if we misjudge how we come across to our colleagues and supervisors.
Since we all possess a somewhat muddled and inaccurate image of how we come across to others, it shouldn’t be a shock to learn that we justify our motives through rose-colored glasses. Psychologists believe there is a clear connection between the three components of our emotional response: thoughts, emotions and behavior.
This strong connection can lead to good mental health. However, thinking or feeling one way and then behaving differently causes cognitive dissonance, and we experience anxiety and stress as we try to justify the inconsistencies. Cognitive dissonance happens when our actions don’t match our beliefs. Our behavior has become a habit, or worse, we take the path of least resistance. While we can fake it for a while with others, we know deep inside that we’re imposters because we’re thinking one way and behaving in another.
Consistency in our behavior means living in alignment with our beliefs and values. This cultivates confidence in ourselves as we make decisions. It also makes others more comfortable because they know what to expect.
How to make it work for you:
Ask trusted friends to describe you. Do the descriptions feel accurate? Have you missed an essential part of your personality?
Who inspires you? Why? Who do you inspire?
Notice situations where you experienced a lack of consistency in your choices and decisions. Dig down further: Was it when you were confronted with the unexpected, a disappointment or adversity? What would have been a better response?
2. Identify triggers
Chances are good that sometimes you’ve tried to change your behavior through willpower. Chances are equally good that you failed miserably. But there is more to self-discipline than keeping to a schedule.
The reason willpower is not enough to change behavior is because it doesn’t take into account our emotions or thoughts. We do what feels good and avoid what feels bad. Yet, as leaders, we’re not allowed the luxury of such self-indulgence. There will always be someone or something that pushes our buttons, and our response may not always be measured and appropriate.
Self-awareness helps you identify the people or situations that trigger negative and positive responses. Self-awareness enables you to answer these questions: Why do you do what you do, and how do others respond? How do you respond in turn, and why do you react the way you do? What is the impact of culture on your perspective and others’ perceptions?
We all have strengths and weaknesses, and self-awareness enables us to see our blind spots, those traits or habits that influence how we act, react or behave. Left unchecked, they can limit your effectiveness as a leader. This doesn’t require you to embark on a personality overhaul. Instead, self-awareness makes you emotionally intelligent because you can be yourself but with more skill and finesse.
How to make it work for you:
Gather feedback from people you know and trust. They can help you understand the impact of your behavior on others.
Take personality assessments like the Enneagram or Myers-Briggs. These tools will help you dig deeper into your personality so you can better understand why you make the decisions you do.
Choose which of your personality traits you need for business or social situations. Self-awareness gives you the power to make those choices.
3. Live authentically
Authenticity is the ability to share the deepest and most authentic part of ourselves with other people. It begins with self-awareness, knowing who we are and what we believe. We’re told to be ourselves, but how many people know what that means? The confusion starts in school when we face peer pressure to fit in. God forbid if you stood out in any way. Not only peers but also parents and teachers mold us into who they think we should be. As adults, we’re slapped with images of perfection and by social media influencers who supposedly know enough about life to tell us how to live ours.
On one level, we’re encouraged to live according to our values, pursue our purpose in life and search for meaning. At the same time, however, we live in a society that celebrates superficiality. This leads to inconsistent behavior, poor values and a lack of authenticity. As a result, we wear masks that don’t necessarily convey who we are or what we feel at the moment. Masks can be good because they help us adapt to a changing environment. As an FBI agent, I often wore a mask in interviews because most people have a stereotype in mind when they meet an agent. My mask matched their stereotype and relaxed them so they would more truthfully answer my questions.
Many of us have been the newbie at the office where a mask allowed us to watch and learn about our work environment. We all know that many companies don’t want employees to bring their souls to work. We all wear masks. The key is to understand why and when you wear it. But this is important: Don’t confuse the mask with the person you are. If the mask you wear in day-to-day life isn’t the real you, you’ve just admitted that the person you are isn’t good enough. You’re not OK, so you pretend to be something or someone else and seek refuge behind a disguise.
Authenticity requires the personal wisdom from an inner journey to uncover our honest feelings and emotions. It’s the idea that how we feel inside should match our actions and behavior on the outside. When we do, we make ourselves vulnerable. It’s an attitude that also makes us incredibly courageous. It takes more than honesty to be authentic. It takes self-awareness to give you the courage to be who you are and not pretend to be someone or something different.
How to make it work for you:
Do you say or do things because someone taught you this was the correct response? The fake person will do whatever they need to fit in, so they often act in ways inconsistent with their authentic self. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. The important thing is to notice the discrepancies between our beliefs and actions.
A good exercise is to list what you believe to be true of yourself, both good and bad. Then, examine each one, expand on it and identify how, when and where you acquired that belief. Who told you this was true about yourself? why do you continue to hold on to it? Does it feel right today?
LaRae Quy was an FBI undercover and counterintelligence agent for 24 years, during which she exposed and recruited foreign spies and developed the mental toughness to survive in environments of risk, uncertainty and deception. Find out if you’re mentally tough with Quy’s FREE, evidence-based Mental Toughness Assessment. Quy’s new book is “Secrets of a Strong Mind (2nd edition): How To Build Inner Strength To Overcome Life’s Obstacles.” Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn.
Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.