brain development, business schools, coaching, David Smith, Homo sapiens, human civilization, Mark Leary, Nicole buttermore, peer coaching, primates, psychology, real world, self-awareness, teamwork

Taking an Anthropological Lens to Self-Awareness

Posted Jan 25, 2013 by Hult Labs

In our last post, we discussed employers’ desire for business school graduates to exhibit more self-awareness (“they’ll gladly hire the self-aware over the self-confident”). We also proposed some suggestions for how schools can begin to incorporate more opportunities for students to discover more about themselves, and some of the reasons why that's easier said than done. We also addressed how gaining greater competency around self-awareness can serve students in some very good ways once they enter (or for some, re-enter) the real world.

Now, let’s take a step back, put on an anthropological lens, and look at why self-awareness is so important in the first place. In the 2003 article “The Evolution of the Human Self: Tracing the Natural History of Self-Awareness,” psychologists Mark Leary and Nicole Buttermore proposed that human beings’ ability to be self-aware may have been one of the reasons why human civilization took a quantum leap forward about 50,000 years ago, during the Upper Paleolithic time period, resulting in some remarkable cultural and technological breakthroughs. If Leary and Buttermore are right, it wasn’t just one individual’s tendency toward self-awareness that resulted in extraordinary advances for humankind – it was the collective ability of many.

David Smith, a psychologist at the State University of New York at Buffalo, has conducted research on self-awareness in primates and recently found evidence that an element of it does exist in Old World primates, with which humans share a common ancestor. In a recent article he stated that self-awareness is “one of the most important facets of humans' reflective mind, central to every aspect of our comprehension and learning. These results […] could help explain why self-awareness is such an important part of our cognitive makeup.” As the neural architecture of the brain evolved over time, Homo sapiens gained more sophisticated abilities, and began to build more complex connections and kinships with people outside their respective clans.

So it’s clear that self-reflection has been a crucial element in the development of the species, but what does it have to do with the workplace and the real world?

In interviews we’ve conducted with business leaders around the world we have learned that they are looking for specific abilities from today’s business school graduates – a set of which fall under the umbrella of self-awareness. Leaders want graduates to have a good grasp of their strengths and weaknesses, as well as the ability to communicate them clearly. This helps employers determine the areas where new employees need the most effective training (setting them up for a greater shot at success). Employers also want graduates who can talk about how they’ve dealt with adversity in their professional and personal lives, which provides employers an indication of leadership potential. And they also want to see that graduates can accept feedback. An individual without much self-awareness may become defensive upon receiving feedback, rather than incorporating the information in a constructive way. We believe that business schools can help students develop these skills.

By design, a business school program typically has the intensity of a pressure cooker. This type of environment helps to stretch students’ comfort levels and abilities. Why does this matter? Pressure situations are far more likely to bring out behaviors that wouldn’t ordinarily be seen in the humdrum of everyday life. We are far more likely to discover new things about ourselves, and others, when we are driven outside the boundary lines of our happy places. Most business schools, such as Hult, structure some of their classes around teams, where students must work together, usually with short deadlines to complete projects. When a team is given a task, and not a lot of time to complete it, the good, the bad, and the ugly will most likely emerge – and that’s the whole idea. Students make discoveries about themselves and others without the consequence of anyone getting fired or losing millions of dollars for the corporation. There’s a safety net. It’s a great place to learn not only the subject matters of the given courses, but about the life skills that business leaders are looking for. But, simply working in teams is no guarantee that self-awareness will develop.

In our research we’ve come across different ways and methods schools and organizations advocate increasing self-awareness among students and employees. We’ve reached the conclusion that there is no magic formula, no “number one” tool – and that there are lots of different approaches. One thing is clear: genuinely gaining greater self-awareness requires time and effort. Receiving feedback from others on strengths and opportunities doesn’t easily translate into insight unless it’s done in a high-impact way, which means piercing and shifting perspectives that people may have held tightly to their entire lives.

It just might also take a coach. Executives have long called on coaches to aid in their leadership development, and some business schools use writing coaches to help students sharpen their writing skills. A coach who helps students hone their self-awareness (among other soft skill competencies) may be helpful in speeding up the delivery and digestion of critical feedback as it relates to the world outside of school. But students themselves can also serve as coaches within their teams (with some proper training tools along the way). While an “external” coach can pick up on behaviors that fellow peers may not see as clearly, or find awkward to communicate, peer coaching can help students accept feedback that may otherwise be hard to swallow. Gaining self-awareness may not be painless, but it can pay big dividends when it comes to impressing a future employer, and eventually thriving within an organization.

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