Management Consultant Mike Eldon

Reviving the neglected art of self-exploration

Socrates reminded us that “an unexamined life is not worth living.” But who should be doing the examining? Too many of us have never considered the possibility of it being ourselves, of imagining that we have the capacity to self-examine, and acknowledging that it is an important skill to develop.

When we are growing up we assume it is our parents and teachers whose role it is to pass judgement on us, and this assumption remains with many of us for the rest of our lives. We continue being “children”, expecting the ongoing oversight of “parents”.

On arriving here in the late seventies as a manager I expected – as I had been accustomed to in the UK – that the appraisal process would be initiated by appraisees assessing themselves. I was shocked by the pushback I received.

“But that’s your job,” I was told by some, and asked why I was avoiding my responsibilities. Did I not know my appraisees well enough? Was I insufficiently aware of how they had been performing? Had I been too lazy to prepare my assessment?

For some, it just did not feel right to think or talk about themselves. They weren’t the ones who should be doing it, period. Part of the problem was that they were not prepared to “brag”, to “blow their trumpet”, for such immodesty would be against their principles of humility.

(Which is why so many CVs lack the marketing appeal their authors actually merit.) On and on, so many justifications for self-assessment avoidance.

Yet for me one of the main ways I judge a person is by how self-aware they are, by their ability to observe themselves objectively and draw appropriate conclusions about what’s working well that they should feel proud about and what needs to change.

Such is the mature, emotionally intelligent person who looks in the mirror to learn from experience and to grow. Yes, they must be open to the input of others, but more as a way of enhancing how they study and coach and improve themselves.

Some weeks ago I wrote about Think Again by Adam Grant, a book I have been talking about ever since I read it. In my article I shared Grant’s take on self-awareness insofar as the relationship between competence and confidence is concerned.

It is logical to assume that the more competent we are the more confident we become, I wrote. And yet, Grant points out, some of us feel confident despite lacking competence.

This speaks of arrogance and complacency, of a lack of self-awareness. (In the context of appraisals, it may just be the appraisee’s way of negotiating for a higher pay review or a promotion.)

At the other end of the spectrum Grant draws attention to the “imposter syndrome”. Those who suffer from it feel they’re not up to the task, even in situations where they actually are competent and it is only their confidence that is lacking, I explained in my article.

This can turn out to be helpful, he and others have pointed out, as it keeps them away from the know-it-all mindset and encourages listening and learning, rethinking and unlearning.

To be relaxed about rethinking we must be confidently humble, with our egos in check, Grant tells us. Interestingly, many of those with whom I interact in appraisals display what I call “excess humility”.

Such people over-focus on their weaknesses while taking their strengths for granted – prompting me to move them away from their self-flagellating mindset.

Such guidance is part of what coaches offer, as coaching individuals or groups to indulge in constructive self-exploration is very much part of what those who play this role are meant to do.

So devote time to reflecting purposefully about yourself, generating self-knowledge that helps you navigate your way through life. Do so in calmness, in a quiet place, perhaps by going for a walk. Write about it, indeed make this a habit by doing so in a journal.

Yes, do also seek input from bosses, mentors, coaches and others, and be open to their contributions. Celebrate with them what is to be celebrated, and work on what needs to be worked on. Enjoy the journey. Not least the one where you accompany yourself.