How to Avoid 'CEO Disease' and Become a More Self-Aware Entrepreneur
Cultivating just a few regular practices can help you to get in touch with your emotions and better understand how others view you.
The timeless folktale "The Emperor's New Clothes" tells the story of a leader who was too proud (and vain) to see clearly a very obvious reality. He was also too powerful and intimidating to receive candid feedback from his official advisors.
As it turns out, power can corrupt our ability to see ourselves clearly and get honest feedback in real life, too. Just consider the current controversy about the disgraced founder of Theranos. In fact, studies show that although most people think they're self-aware, only 10-15% actually are. What's more, the higher we rise on the corporate ladder, the greater risk we run of losing touch. Organizational psychologist Dr. Tasha Eurich calls it "CEO Disease." As she writes, "just as experience can lead to a false sense of confidence about our performance, it can also make us overconfident about our level of self-knowledge." Eurich cites a study in which more-experienced managers were found to be less accurate in assessing their leadership effectiveness compared with less experienced managers.
For entrepreneurs, self-awareness is critical: Better-performing companies tend to have more self-aware leaders. As CEO of Jotform, being self-aware helps me make better decisions for our company, and more importantly, our 10 million users. It doesn't always come naturally — instead, it takes an active effort and coordination with my team.
Here, a few expert-backed strategies that have helped me to cultivate a greater sense of self-awareness.
1. Set up multiple feedback channels.
First off, when we say "self-awareness," we're referring to how we see ourselves and recognizing our emotional states at any given time. It also means being in tune with how other people see us. Feedback is one strategy to achieve both kinds of self-awareness.
By now, it's well-established that feedback should be regular and ongoing, as opposed to, for example, a single (stressful) annual review. But some companies, like the hardware company Screwfix, take it one step further and set up two-way channels for feedback: Employees regularly give feedback to managers and vice versa. For Screwfix, the practice led to employee-driven initiatives that streamlined customer experience. It's a great way for entrepreneurs and employees to better understand how others really view them. It can also break down any barrier for receiving candid feedback as a leader.
Then, there's what Eurich calls "loving critics" — you might call them trusted advisors — they're the people who have your best interest in mind and are willing to tell you the truth. In interviews, Eurich and her team found that people who improved their external self-awareness regularly sought feedback from their loving critics.
Even if it means having uncomfortable talks — feedback can be a tough pill to swallow, especially when it comes to our businesses — getting continual feedback from both colleagues and the people whom you trust the most will help increase your self-knowledge exponentially.
2. Ask "what" not "why"
Sometimes, too much introspection can lead to a lack of self-awareness — especially, according to Eurich, when it leads to unhelpful and ruminative thinking. To counter this tendency without sacrificing important introspection, Eurich recommends a subtle switch: asking yourself "what" instead of "why." She explains, ""What' questions help us stay objective, future-focused, and empowered to act on our new insights."
So instead of Why do I always feel terrible after meetings?, try What tends to happen during meetings that causes me to feel a certain way? What can I do to change it? This will help you analyze the situation with a more impartial eye.
The same rule applies to questions directed toward your colleagues and partners — ask what, not why. For example, Robert S. Kaplan writes about how one of his clients, the CEO of a medium-sized pharmaceutical company, was struggling with his team and questioning his leadership abilities. Kaplan advised him to ask his direct reports one single question: "What advice would you offer to help me improve my effectiveness? Please give me one or two specific and actionable suggestions. I would appreciate your advice."
Though conversations were understandably a little awkward at first, the CEO ended up receiving surprising and quite useful advice.
Framing questions, to ourselves and others, in the "what" format helps to cut through the emotions and gain actionable insight.
Read More: Why Self-Awareness Is Key to Innovation
3. Practice regular self-reflection
One final strategy for cultivating more self-awareness occurs on a personal level: establishing a regular practice for self-reflection. For example, you can try meditating, literally looking in the mirror (and tracking your attention and emotions) or keeping a journal. Though I start every day with morning pages, a total freelow of any ideas rattling around in my head, I also try to regularly carve out some time for more structured reflection.
As Celeste Viciere, a licensed mental health clinician, tells MSNBC, "As you are journaling, pay attention to your day. Ask yourself how you feel. If there are negative feelings associated with the day, think about what triggers may have caused them to bubble up. For any positive feelings, think about what may have triggered you to feel happy."
Brenda Ellington Booth and Karen Cates, writing for The Kellogg School of Management, explain that self-reflection must also be purposeful and strategic, considering what's most important for the individual and the organization. "Self-reflection isn't just about looking backward; it also allows you to be proactive instead of reactive."
In other words, "know thyself" isn't enough. Try to cultivate self-awareness with an eye toward making positive changes and effectively managing your emotions; becoming the person that you want to be — and your company needs you to be.
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