Self-awareness is one of those qualities that we all need, yet so often we may fall short of. To be self-aware not only requires good insight, and capacity to honestly reflect on yourself and your behaviour, but also to understand how others might see you as well. When it comes to social intelligence, self-awareness is one of the more critical yet evasive skills to develop.

New research in the Journal of Management has found that self-awareness is a critical factor in high functioning teams. Examining data from 515 teams (including 2,658 individuals), the researchers found that teams composed of individuals with greater levels of self-awareness exhibited more effective team-level functioning and performance.

In general people are not good at judging how they are seen by their bosses, direct reports, or peers. This is because we tend to be ego-centric in our view of ourselves and rate our qualities and abilities as better than we really are. While this may be inaccurate, and leave us blind to how others see us, some researchers suggest that when managed well, self-deception may have social and evolutionary advantages.

Although self-deception may have advantages, when it comes to the domain of ethical behaviour, failing to acknowledge our flaws or see our behaviour accurately can have serious consequences. Because ethics is so often viewed through a black and white lens – our behaviour is either right or wrong, and people are either good or bad – we find the idea that we are flawed in this domain as threatening. It tends to be easier to admit that we did something incompetent that had financial consequences than it is to admit that we acted against our own principles and did something with unethical consequences.

Behavioural ethics provides an important antidote to this way of thinking. By focusing on what we actually do, rather than what we should do, it helps people to see that all of us are prone to ethical slip-ups, self-serving behaviour, or perhaps even failing to acknowledge the ethical dimensions of our decisions and actions. It helps people to understand the nature of slippery slopes, why our capacity to make ethical decisions is often limited, and how ethical considerations can sometimes fade from our frame of reference.

Behavioural ethics provides a framework for deconstructing the idea that good people always behave ethically. It turns out that none of us can claim to be saints!

Why is this important? Well, just as self-awareness is critical to effective team-level functioning, it is also critical to building ethical cultures within organizations. People need to feel they can communicate effectively around ethical issues. They need to feel they can ‘speak up’ when they feel that something is wrong. This becomes much easier when ethical issues are understood as problems to be solved and issues to be negotiated, rather than good people telling bad people how they should behave.

By facilitating effective communication around ethical issues, ethical self-awareness provides a critical building block for transparent and flourishing ethical cultures.

If you are interested in creating an ethical culture in your workplace and developing ‘speak up’ capabilities across all staff, please contact brock@psysafe.com.au or david@psysafe.com.au (see www.psysafe.com.au for more details)

David Burroughs

WORKPLACE PSYCHOLOGIST

David Burroughs is a workplace psychologist who has spent the last decade and half working with major organisations, both in Australia and abroad, in the area of workplace mental health.

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