by Claire Hughes Johnson
During my 10 years at Google as a VP, there were weeks where I would spend up to 40 hours conducting job interviews. So to make things easier, I always had one skill that I looked for in candidates before anything else: self-awareness.
Sure, your experience and skills matter, but they can be learned. And when someone is highly self-aware, they’re more motivated to learn because they’re honest about what they need to work on. They also relate better to their colleagues and managers.
Plus, it’s a rare trait: Research shows that although 95% of people think they’re self-aware, only 10% to 15% actually are.
How I check for self-awareness
I always watch for two words: Too much “I” is a red flag that they may not be humble or collaborative; too much “we” may obscure what role they played in the situation. There needs to be a balance.
I typically learn something revealing when I ask about their specific role. A positive answer would be: “It was my idea, but the credit goes to the whole team.”
I also ask how their colleagues would describe them. If they only say good things, I probe what constructive feedback they’ve received.
Then I’ll say, “And what have you done to improve?” to check their orientation towards learning and self-improvement, and to see whether they’ve taken that feedback to heart.
The self-awareness assessment
If you’re not self-aware, how would you know? Here are some telltale signs:
- You consistently get feedback that you disagree with. This doesn’t mean the feedback is correct, but it does mean that how others perceive you differs from how you perceive yourself.
- You often feel frustrated and annoyed because you don’t agree with your team’s direction or decisions.
- You feel drained at the end of a workday and can’t pinpoint why.
- You can’t describe what kinds of work you do and don’t enjoy doing.
How to build self-awareness
Becoming more self-aware is all about understanding why you work the way you do, and what you can contribute to your team:
1. Understand your values.
Knowing what is important to you, what gives you energy, and what weakens it will help you make sense of how you work.
With these insights, you’ll be able to express your values and understand when they are at odds with one another, or with someone else’s values.
2. Identify your work style.
Spend a few weeks writing down the moments when you feel like you’re reaching new heights at your job or hitting new lows. You’ll start to see patterns.
If you have trouble trusting your own instincts, ask someone whose judgment you respect: “When have you seen me do my best and worst work?”
3. Analyze your skills and capabilities.
In an interview setting, you should be able to speak confidently about your strengths and weaknesses.
To have a more tactical sense of self-awareness, ask yourself two questions:
- What can you do really well? Which skills do you have, and which do you need to build on?
- What are your capabilities? What are you naturally good at, and which capabilities have you acquired over time?
Eric Yuan, founder and CEO of Zoom, has another great exercise: He sets aside 15 minutes of thinking at the end of the day.
“I ask myself: What did I do well? Did I make any mistakes? Can I improve tomorrow? Sometimes I write down something important,” he says. “But most of the time, the thinking is enough.”
Claire Hughes Johnson is an advisor for Stripe, author of “Scaling People,” and lecturer at Harvard Business School. Previously, she was Stripe’s Chief Operating Officer, and spent 10 years at Google, where she oversaw aspects of Gmail, Google Apps, and consumer operations. Claire also serves as a trustee and the current board president of Milton Academy.