Roeder Consulting uses the word Awareness as an umbrella term encompassing different components: internal awareness (also called self-awareness), and external awareness (which is made up of social awareness, and situational awareness). The discipline does not refer to a strong focus in one area, but a holistic understanding of what’s around you, and how your biases may affect your perception of it all. As a highly self-aware person, you understand the importance of organizing your own thoughts and feelings. You are likely someone who is able to recognize and navigate your strengths and weaknesses in the interest of your own personal and professional betterment. Additionally, because you are aware of others, you have a knack for not just listening to other people when they’re talking, but also picking up their tone, body language, and facial expressions. You are likely skilled at reconciling not just what people say but how they say it. And because you have a high degree of situational awareness, you also know how to keep an eye on the ever-changing context of the projects in your organization.
Some people believe that the word “awareness” sounds like it's referring to something “soft”. Others believe it's too much of an abstract quality to really have an effect on an organization's bottom line. However, research shows that awareness is one of the single most important skills a project manager can possess. Mastering the three kinds of awareness is the first step to mastering the remaining Six Disciplines. After all, it's hardly useful to be persistent with a project if you aren't aware of what's going on in that project. Without proper awareness, acting on many of the other Six Disciplines could do more harm than help.
BUILD YOUR SKILLS
A high score in the Awareness category indicates that you actively exercise all kinds of awareness in the workplace. You may do this by taking time out of your day to check in with yourself via an organized activity like meditating or journaling, or by something as simple as scheduling time in your day for yourself to relax, review and fully digest the day’s events. Below are some examples of exercises to improve your awareness:
- Expand your field of vision. It’s easy to go through life focusing only on what is affecting us in the present. This tunnel vision is especially common when people are overworked and overwhelmed. However, when we’re concentrating on just the few details directly in front of us, we miss out on the wealth of surrounding context. We can end up overlooking the why of the day’s events, and can even fail to realize how our personal thoughts and actions could be shaping our day. As you go through your work, remind yourself to take a one or two minute mental break every so often to take in more details than you usually do. Intentionally look for details in your environment you generally wouldn’t give a second thought, and check in with yourself mentally and emotionally. This may be uncomfortable and feel unnatural at first, but it’s a reliable way to exercise your external and internal awareness.
- Ask yourself ‘why?’. Have you ever interacted with a child who, in response to seemingly everything, just loves to ask “but why?”? While this could be anything from endearing to distracting, it’s good for your awareness to practice this with yourself. Before acting on a decision, pause and ask yourself “Why?” Think of a solid response that you would agree with if someone else relayed it to you. Then, ask yourself again – “but why?” Provide yourself with clarity on the importance of your decision. For a third and final time, ask yourself “but why?”. Think about your own emotions and biases that may be influencing the decision. Being self-aware means knowing and understanding your motives, acknowledging when they are or are not reasonable, and having clear-headed confidence in your actions.
- "The next time you go into a meeting, leave time to be aware of the people in the room and the situation. Focus on verbal and nonverbal behavior of the people in the room. Do not focus only on the content of your report. It may be too difficult for you to focus both on your presentation and on the people in the room. In this case, ask someone else to deliver your report while you scan the room for any details about how the people are receiving your project. This exercise will help you turn awareness into a habit. It will train you to dedicate part of your consciousness to focusing on the people and the situation while the rest of your consciousness continues to execute the work plan.” - A Sixth Sense for Project Management, Tres Roeder.
For more information about how to improve your awareness, see A Sixth Sense for Project Management, pg 43.
BE MINDFUL: LEAN INTO DISCOMFORT
Mastery of both sides of the awareness coin – internal and external – is essential in order for anyone to reach their fullest potential in any of the other Disciplines. Many people tend to believe you can be good at either one or the other. After all, we tend to categorize people as either introverts or extroverts, private or social. The idea that we can (and should) practice each of these states of awareness is not emphasized in our personal or professional lives. But instead of being opposing skills that take away from each other, Roeder Consulting finds that balancing both kinds of awareness strengthens and supports the other.
Some of the other Disciplines are more intuitive to practice: we can keep some principles in the back of our minds when communicating, and we can put real, tangible actions into our schedule to help pace our persistence. With awareness, however, we can schedule some time to meditate, but the study of the Discipline shouldn’t just be turned on and off at will. We make the best Whole Body Decisions™ and become skilled diplomats when we sustain a level of heightened self, social, and situational awareness at all times. Perhaps more than any other Discipline, Awareness isn’t a skill you can just throw time at until you “get” it. It’s a way of thinking. To an extent, increasing our awareness means rewiring how our brains take in information.
This isn’t meant to discourage you from trying, but to set realistic expectations. It will feel uncomfortable at first and will likely not yield any great tangible results within the first month of the practice. Don’t be discouraged! If there was an easy trick to becoming more aware in a day, we would share it with all our clients. Instead, heightening your awareness is a significant investment for significant benefits. Research shows awareness makes us more confident and creative people. We are able to make stronger decisions, communicate more effectively, and build more lasting relationships. We’re even less likely to lie, cheat, or steal, and prove to be better workers who get more promotions. On the flip side, leaders with higher levels of awareness have more satisfied employees and run more profitable companies¹.
At first, many of the exercises to increase awareness can be difficult to wrap your mind around. They can be awkward and unintuitive to practice. Imagine going through external awareness exercises. Even though we can read an activity that tells us to attempt to take note of someone’s body language. It’s not unusual to get caught in an internal monologue of, “Okay, he crossed his arms. Does that mean he doesn’t like the presentation? Or maybe he’s just cold? Does leaning back mean something? Do I look like I’m staring? Oh no, I missed what he was saying!” There’s an infinite number of details you could end up focusing on when taking in the behavior of others and the world around you. Knowing how to be aware of the right things is easier said than done.
Practicing internal awareness, on the other hand, is its own can of worms. Frequently, first-timers might try the-age old wisdom of taking a few minutes of downtime to sit alone at their desk with their eyes closed. But then the might start panicking, because time is passing and they’re still not sure what they should be thinking about! It’s normal to prefer being busy to time alone with ourselves. In fact, in one study, researchers attempted to study daydreaming and found another conclusion entirely². When left alone in a room with their thoughts and a button that could administer electrical shocks, participants overwhelmingly chose to walk up to the button and shock themselves – multiple times! – instead of simply allowing their mind to wander. Even when controlling for curiosity, and even after giving participants time to prepare so they knew what they wanted to think about, 15 minutes of time alone was reported as unpleasant. 25% of women and 67% of men participants still chose pain over self-reflection.
But it's important to lean into that discomfort. Acknowledge that discomfort might be part of the practice for the first few weeks. Give the awkwardness its moment, in which you area aware of it and accept it as normal and part of the process. Don't try to fix it or justify or it or get rid of it. Allow your feelings to exist as they come up, and then recenter your focus on other things.
STAY PRESENT AND POSITIVE
Awareness isn't necessarily about having all the answers immediately. Instead, it's about taking a step back and reviewing what is currently happening and what needs to be done. Instead of jumping to, “He’s crossed his arms, and that means he’s upset”, focus instead on what patterns there might be in that specific person’s behavior. Rephrase your thinking to, "Okay, so he crossed his arms. What can I do to make sure he's not upset?" What is it that’s happening? What are they saying with their words, their tone, their body language? What actions can you take to turn the meeting around?
It’s important not to use awareness as an excuse to ruminate. Rumination is the constant mental replay of events in which we try to figure out why things happened the way they did, often focusing on the negative aspects. Think of rumination as negative awareness. It's not useful to focus on what could have been or should have been. Not only will that not help us reach our goals as effectively as other forms of thinking, but that can even lead to depressive thinking. Instead of dwelling on the past, use awareness as a tool to help you make the best decisions for the present, and determine the best course of action for the future. You don't need to understand the cause of every thought you have, every action of others, and who's to blame for a certain situation. But you can use awareness to direct your thoughts into actionable and productive behaviors, to better understand what others need from you, and how to plan for the future.
© Roeder Consulting 2018
¹ Eurich, Tasha. What Self-Awareness Really Is (and How To Cultivate It). Harvard Business Review, 2018.
² Wilson, Timothy. Just think: The challenges of the disengaged mind. Science Magazine, 2014.