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Self-Awareness a Critical Capability for Project Managers

As a project manager, your ability to monitor your behavior is the foundation for your ability to excel.

This article defines self-awareness, explores its importance to effective performance and identifies ways to increase your self-awareness.


Self-awareness is the ability to “step back” and observe yourself objectively to know your behavior, motivations, feelings, values and desires. It is knowing your personality and the way you display it in your life.

Self-awareness goes beyond intellectual understanding. It includes the ability to know from the inside the emotional states – happiness, depression, anger, disappointment, etc. – that are integral parts of our lives. It includes the awareness that even the attempt to intellectually understand the causes of those emotional states may be a way of avoiding or suppressing those emotions.

Why It Is Important

As a project manager, you are charged with getting goals and objectives met through the efforts of other people. Often you are faced with challenges like stakeholders with conflicting views and motives and conditions that are out of your control and get in the way of accomplishing your objectives within time and cost constraints.

There are many examples, and for those who have taken any role in any project you have your own. Some of my “favorites” are:

  • Stakeholders who are not available when it comes time for them to define requirements and who then complain about project delays
  • Executives or bureaucrats who restrict or delay hiring or procurement of tools and other resources after having approved project budgets, schedules, and objectives
  • Performers and functional managers who say one thing and do another
  • Loss of a key resource with little or no time for replacement and turnover.

Let’s not stop with the challenges caused by external factors. Project managers are also faced with what we can call ego issues – a leader who has narcissistic tendencies will see things as if they are all about him or her; a perfectionist with anger issues will react badly when faced with poor quality deliverables.

Emotional Intelligence and Self-awareness

Emotional Intelligence is the capability to manage emotions and to handle interpersonal relationships effectively. It is considered a principle quality that underlies effective leadership and the ability to operate effectively when working with others in any role. There are five components of emotional intelligence at work: Self-awareness, Self-regulation, Motivation, Empathy and Social Skill.

Self-awareness is a primary factor in emotional intelligence. When faced with challenges, for many, emotions will arise. If you are not self-aware you will be more likely to act out your emotions reflexively – yell, blame, rant, withdraw, become increasingly rigid, etc. Anger may lead to depression or outburst. Your affect, the way others perceive you, and your behavior, will impact the way they feel and that will impact their performance.

For example, if you take your anger over what you consider to be a dumb decision by your management out on a team member, the team member will likely come away less motivated to perform well. If you become depressed and lose your zeal for the project, you will fail to motivate the team. In other words, your mood is contagious, particularly if you are in a leadership position, though the demeanor of a team member can influence the entire team.


Self-awareness enables you to self-regulate your thoughts, speech and action. It gives you the opportunity to think before you speak or act and thereby control and redirect your impulses and moods. Self-awareness promotes self-confidence because it gives you the clear realization that you can control yourself.

Control in this context is not meant to imply some rigid tension. It simply means that you can see what is happening and take a breath before you react. It entails responding rather than reacting. It implies the ability to choose what you think, what you say and how you behave.

Motivation, Empathy, and Social Skill

Motivation is enabled by self-awareness. Self-awareness provides the ability to know that everything you think, do or say be influenced by what drives you -your values and goals. Knowing your motivations and seeing your emotional responses to them – whether passion or lethargy – gives you the opportunity to question and fine tune your motivations so that your response will be more likely to be passion.

Self-awareness is a prerequisite for empathy. It is difficult if not impossible to understand how others may be feeling without having a foundation in the awareness of your own feelings.

Social skill, the ability to manage relationships, come to agreements, build rapport and establish networks, emerges as the other components come together. The self-aware person will be able to self-regulate. Self-regulation provides the space needed to know your motives and to have the sense of others that allows you to create trust and motivate others.

Making Better Decisions – Overcoming Bias

Cognitive bias is the tendency to be swayed by culture and personal psychology to make poor decisions based on illogical inferences about other people or situations. It is a systematic error in thinking. Self-awareness is an important ingredient to help to overcome cognitive biases and therefore to make more effective decisions.

Self-awareness gives you the sense that your intuition is driving you towards a decision, lets you see whether that is a habitual response to the situation and to question it. By testing your intuition, it leads to uncovering the cause which may be an unconscious bias.

Becoming More Self-Aware

Becoming more self-aware is a double-edged sword. In addition to the benefits of increasing emotional intelligence and clearer, unbiased thinking, it also forces you to confront the parts of your personality that you might find disturbing and hard to take. “Ignorance is bliss.”

If you are oblivious to the impact an angry style of pointing out flaws in other people’s performance, you can just happily continue to do so. Once you become aware of it and of the impact it has are now faced with the challenge to change. Your style is deeply embedded and hard to change. As self-awareness increases, you have a greater need to accept your flaws and the courage to work to overcome them.

To increase your self-awareness, start with being fed-up with being reactive and distracted by random thoughts triggered by external and internal events. There is a Catch-22 here. To be fed up with being reactive, you need to be self-aware. Often this initial level of self-awareness comes in the form of a shock of some kind – for example, a valued team member quits and gives the reason as your style of management.

The principle way to increase self-awareness is to cultivate a mindfulness practice. You may take on a formal meditation practice or decide to informally increase your mindfulness by purposefully taking greater notice of the things you think, say and do. You can question your intuition driven decisions and your basic beliefs. You can promote feedback form your peers, superiors, and subordinates to see yourself as others see you.

As you increase your mindfulness, awareness of your thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations will increase. You will be more likely to be tuned into your surroundings, including the way others are behaving. You will become more objective in your thinking.

As you get feedback from those around you, your eyes will open to the you that you have not been seeing clearly.

George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.

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