The Two Sides of Self-Awareness

Updated: Nov 9, 2020

Netflix gained 15.7 million new subscribers in the first quarter of 2020, increasing its base by nearly 10 percent. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Netflix—an entertainment streaming company—profited significantly due to the number of people compelled to stay home. Aware that its benefit was coming at the expense of many around the globe, Netflix published the following “quote [in] the company’s shareholder letter: ‘We expect viewing to decline and membership growth to decelerate as home confinement ends, which we hope is soon.’”

Expressing a preference for the common good above personal profit will likely help mitigate the unfavorable swing in profits bound to occur as circumstances return to normal. Change is inevitable and unforeseen events are bound to occur. However, individuals and businesses can dictate their actions and reactions related to various circumstances. Doing so may positively affect future trends, as suggested by the recent actions of Netflix.

Acting as Netflix did requires individuals to understand their own situation and inclinations while also considering the perception of outsiders. This is self-awareness. In researching self-awareness, Tasha Eurich, principal of executive development firm The Eurich Group, and her research team found two defining principles of self-awareness: internal self-awareness and external self-awareness. Below is a discussion of these components, as well as some tips for their development.

Internal Self-Awareness

Eurich defines internal self-awareness as “how clearly we see our own values, passions, aspirations, fit with our environment, reactions (including thoughts, feelings, behaviors, strengths, and weaknesses), and impact on others.” Her group found this ability to be positively associated with higher satisfaction and control, while negatively associated with anxiety, stress, and depression. Mendemu Showry and K V L Manasa describe internal self-awareness as “an understanding of how we think and feel in different situations about different aspects of self.” They claim, “[internal] awareness shapes a leader’s decisions and determines his/her actions and behaviors.” Chinwe Esimai, managing director and chief anti-bribery officer at Citigroup, further describes this application of self-awareness stating, “successful leaders know where their natural inclinations lie and use this knowledge to boost those inclinations or compensate for them.”

Development Through Meditation

Showry and Manasa maintain that self-appraisal, social comparison, and behavioral examination are key sources of internal self-awareness. Each of these can be accomplished through meditation. Anthony Tjan, CEO and Founder of venture capital firm Cue Ball, includes meditation as one of his “5 Ways to Become More Self-Aware.” Reflecting on his own meditation practices, he states that along with focusing on his breathing, he asks himself a set of questions. Interestingly, each of his example questions begin with the word “what.”

Eurich believes this is key: “asking what, not why.” She claims that asking why “invites unproductive negative thoughts,” such as leading individuals to focus “on their fears, shortcomings, or insecurities, rather than a rational assessment of their strengths and weaknesses.” Instead, asking what can be far more effective. For example, one man her team interviewed successfully changed careers after asking himself, “what are the situations that make me feel terrible and what do they have in common?” rather than “Why do I feel so terrible?” Meditating on the right questions, such as those involving “what,” is an effective way to increase and apply self-awareness.

External Self-Awareness

Eurich defines external self-awareness as “understanding how other people view us, in terms of those same factors,” which were, “values, passions, aspirations, fit with our environment, reactions (including thoughts, feelings, behaviors, strengths, and weaknesses), and impact on others.” Her team found that this ability improved empathy as well as relationships with employees.

Showry and Manasa adopt a similar definition, including that the external side of self-awareness allows leaders to “understand the impact of their behavior on others in the organization.” Applying external self-awareness to businesses as a whole, like in the Netflix example, helps organizations become aware of the impact they have on both their customers and society. Both individuals and organizations can find areas to improve by assessing how those around them perceive and are affected by their actions and intentions.

Development through Seeking Feedback

Showry and Manasa suggest that “an objective evaluation of leaders against certain unambiguous standards and demands of the organization aids in developing initiatives for leadership development.” Similarly, John Hackston, head of thought leadership at The Myers-Briggs Company, proposes that structured feedback from peers and personality assessments “may in fact be the most cost-effective approaches in terms of providing the biggest payoff for a relatively low monetary investment.”

Tjan suggests asking trusted friends and getting regular feedback at work in his list of ways to become more self-aware. He says, “[at] Cue Ball, we have begun encouraging entrepreneurial founders to institute a formal, annual 360-feedback process that provides feedback across multiple areas of competencies and work styles.” He stresses, “it is important [for] all involved to reflect on it by writing down their top takeaways. Note both any surprising strengths and any weaknesses or blind spots.”

One important finding from the Myers-Briggs Company, noted by Hackston, is that feedback from an individual’s manager “was seen to be one of the least effective methods.” This may be due to various biases or levels of association between management and subordinates. As such biases are not always present, this may not apply in all circumstances. However, it is an important consideration for the validity of feedback. Seeking constructive feedback from family, friends, and business associates will help individuals develop an understanding of the significance their actions and intentions have on those around them.


When seeking to develop self-awareness, individuals and organizations must consider both internal and external components. Eurich summarizes self-awareness saying, “leaders who focus on building both internal and external self-awareness, who seek honest feedback from loving critics, and who ask what instead of why can learn to see themselves more clearly—and reap the many rewards that increased self-knowledge delivers.” Hackston explains those benefits stating, once individuals are self-aware, “they can start to recognize how their coworkers are similar to or different from them and begin to devise strategies to work with them more effectively.”

This extends to include working with customers, supervisors, and subordinates. It can even apply to businesses as a whole, such as demonstrated by Netflix’s statement conveying its desire for the greater good before personal profits. Self-awareness enables individuals and organizations to guide how they act and react to events and situations that are otherwise out of their control.

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