Polish Your Professional Image with Better Self-Awareness

Taking a closer look at ourselves in all respects may be hard to do, but it always pays off in the long-run. Doing so is even more critical as regards our professional life, and the post below, by Rebecca Koenig, provides some very useful insights.

WE DON'T KNOW WHAT WE don't know. And as it turns out, those of us who know the least are often least aware of our shortcomings.

Research has revealed that "incompetent individuals are unable to spot their poor performances themselves," according to a now-classic article, "Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments," published in 1999 by psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger.

The problems this phenomenon poses are especially salient at the office, where an employee's success depends on her work quality, reputation and ability to thrive in the company culture.

Consider, for example, a recent memo from Goldman Sachs. In March, the famously formal investment firm announced a new "flexible dress code" designed to fit with the "more casual environment" of the modern work world.

Rather than identify acceptable and unacceptable outfits, however, the memo simply stated: "All of us know what is and is not appropriate for the workplace," and asked workers to "consistently exercise good judgment" about their clothes.

Seems simple enough. But the trouble is that workers who don't actually know what's appropriate for the workplace or who lack good judgment may be totally unaware of their ignorance – and therefore highly likely to commit fashion faux pas.

What Is Self-Awareness?

Possessing external self-awareness means understanding how other people view you. Self-awareness is essential to presenting a "positive professional image," says Laura Morgan Roberts, teaching professor of management at Georgetown University McDonough School of Business.

Most workers want to project an image of competence, commitment, social skill and integrity, she explains. But many don't succeed, and they may not know it.

Cultural differences and power dynamics help explain why some workers lack awareness about their performance and professional image. So does the fact that "people seldom receive negative feedback about their skills and abilities from others in everyday life," according to Dunning and Kruger.

A dearth of feedback doesn't mean behaviors go unnoticed. If an investment banker wanders into Goldman Sachs wearing flip flops, his colleagues may judge him regardless of whether they comment out loud.

"People may not say anything to your face, but behind your back they may be talking," says Belle Rose Ragins, management professor at the Lubar School of Business at University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee.

Workers may lack self-awareness about a variety of their own incompetencies, ranging from social awkwardness to technical ineptitude. Examples of poor self-awareness include:

  • Not following the unwritten office dress code.

  • Not writing and speaking with the expected degree of formality.

  • Not spending enough hours at the office.

  • Not being sufficiently available to your boss outside of work hours.

  • Not arriving for meetings at the same time as other participants.

  • Not decoding passive-aggressive office phrases.

  • Not interpreting hints from your boss.

  • Not demonstrating adequate respect for colleagues' personal space, work styles or authority.

  • Not meeting work productivity or quality standards.

Understand how power affects self-awareness.

Power plays a significant role in shaping self-awareness. Organization leaders set the office norms, which are designed to accommodate the racial, gender and other identities of the dominant group, Ragins says. Employees who belong to this group may take for granted certain values and expectations that require non-dominant workers to adjust.

While this may make it harder for some individuals from the latter group to fit in, chances are they're already very self-aware of how they differ and the ways in which they have to assimilate or code switch to succeed at the office.

"People know way before they enter the job market where their culture fits in society," explains Patrick McKay, professor of human resource management at Rutgers University. "What stigmatized groups do is soften or de-emphasize cultural aspects of themselves, like hairstyles and dress. They'll tend to mimic the dominant culture."

Meanwhile, it's actually people in power who tend to lack self-awareness. Research shows that company executives overestimate their own skills and abilities more than lower-level workers, writes Tasha Eurich, psychologist and executive coach, in Harvard Business Review. Corporate leaders are less likely to get helpful performance feedback because subordinates fear being too honest with them. And executives' status affords them some immunity from the negative consequences of poor self-awareness.

"They just don't notice as much because they don't have to," Roberts says. "When you're (of) lower power in a system, you're very attuned to these dynamics because you're driven to advance, if that is your goal. You're already motivated to be really sensitive to how you're coming across."

Improve your professional image through observation.

Worried about how well you understand your own professional image? It's worth paying attention to subtle clues about whether you're successfully integrating into company culture and how favorably others perceive you.

Remember that joining a new company or team is "like going into a different country," Ragins says. To learn to live like a local, "you listen, you watch, you talk to people and you ask questions. You don't assume things."

Unfortunately, simply reading the employee manual may not adequately educate you about what behaviors and attitudes will help you fit in. You'll need to pay attention to unwritten and unspoken norms, too.

"There are very few companies that are able to explain their culture in ways that are helpful," Ragins says. "In terms of what that means on a day-to-day basis and what kinds of behaviors are expected, rewarded and punished, that's not going to be described in the on-boarding."

Just because you think you know the rules doesn't mean you're following them correctly. It's important to carefully observe how your manager, co-workers and clients react to you. Signs your professional image is suffering include:

  • Being questioned excessively about your experience and qualifications.

  • Being assigned tasks inappropriate to your role or status, such as fetching coffee or making copies.

  • Encountering physical cues of aversion, such as lack of eye contact or reluctance to shake hands.

Improve your self-awareness through mentorship.

Getting honest feedback about how you come across to others will help you project the right kind of professional image. Performance reviews are one channel for these conversations.

But these events, which are typically infrequent and quite formal, can fall flat. Research shows that managers consider giving feedback to be one of their most unpleasant responsibilities, Roberts says. In some cases, rather than offer constructive criticism, "they'll sit back and watch as people languish on their teams."

Additionally, managers are often extra reluctant to provide helpful feedback to women, people of color and members of non-dominant groups for "fear it will be misconstrued as sexist, racist or homophobic," Ragins says.

If you're not getting enough information about your professional development, ask.

"An individual taking ownership of his or her own growth or development only benefits the manager and the worker," Roberts says. "There's no downside to that at all."

Because you can't always rely on your boss to improve your self-awareness, it's imperative to seek authentic feedback from people who "have a relationship with you based on mutuality and trust" and who are "concerned about your career," Ragins says.

She calls these folks mentors. Roberts calls them coaches. Eurich refers to them as "loving critics." They're the people who will explain what "casual Friday" actually means and whether colleagues are amused by your break room banter. They'll read drafts of your work before you submit it to your boss. And when you make a mistake, they'll gently alert you.

No matter what you call them, your trusted advisers should be diverse. A mentor who shares your race and gender can help you develop necessary survival strategies, while a coach whose background differs from yours can offer a divergent, valuable perspective. Both kinds of individuals can help you assess whether the feedback you receive from other sources is accurate or reflects an unfair bias.

"You want to have some people who can empathize with you, and you also want to ask people you know are not afraid to tell you about your opportunities for growth and development," Roberts says.

Self-Awareness Paradox

If you started perusing this article already doubtful about your work performance and ability to judge it, take heart. You may in fact be one of the "extremely competent individuals" who, Dunning and Kruger found, often "underestimate their ability and test performance relative to their peers."

If, however, you've made it this far still totally confident about your performance, image and self-knowledge ... consider starting over from the top.

(Source: Rebecca Koenig, Staff Writer, US News & World Report)

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