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Leadership development series: Self-awareness

The key to understanding how others see us is to first see ourselves clearly


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Making the shift into a formal leadership role is not always easy. I vividly remember the day I was promoted to sergeant. I was relatively young and was assigned a shift of veterans who all had more experience than me. Outwardly I projected confidence but inside I was a little worried about how I would be perceived.

I shared this thought with my new lieutenant, who gave me this advice: “You see those stripes? They will listen to you. You were picked for a reason.” He was right, and they did listen to me. They also asked me for professional and personal advice, told me about their issues with the department, and even told me some things I didn’t want to know.

While there was no formal training program, I learned quickly that I was expected to be a mentor, a counselor, a disciplinarian, as well as a protector of the department. Gone were the days of only being responsible for myself. In fact, after our first meeting where he offered me advice, my lieutenant concluded the meeting by assigning me all of the work. “All of the work?” I asked. “Yes, all of the work,” he replied.

The shift in responsibility was quickly evident as my teammates all left at the end of shift and I was stuck there reviewing their paperwork. I was further forced to learn quickly when after a few months my lieutenant was promoted to captain and I was the only supervisor for nearly six months. One of the things I learned then that has stuck with me all these years is that the way you think you are perceived, and the way you are actually perceived don’t always line up.

When you’re a new leader, understanding how you’re perceived is important. If you know how you’re perceived by your team, you can tailor your message appropriately and lead them in the right direction. If you don’t understand how you’re perceived, you risk your message being misunderstood.

To better understand how we are perceived, we must learn about the concepts of meta-perception and meta-accuracy.

What is meta-perception?

Meta-perception is our perception of how we are perceived by others. While the term may be new, the concept is not.

Each of us as leaders has a belief in how our team perceives us. While we want to be perceived as knowledgeable, professional and someone our team should emulate, sometimes our view and that of our team are quite different.

What is meta-accuracy?

Meta-accuracy is how accurate our meta-perception really is and is a key competency for leaders. Understanding how we are viewed by our team will help us lead effectively and ensures our message is clearly conveyed to those in our charge.

Working to improve our meta accuracy should be the focus of all leaders. The key to understanding how others see us is to first see ourselves clearly.

Five ways to improve our meta-accuracy

Here are five ways to improve self-awareness and in turn, improve our meta-accuracy:

  1. Keep an open mind and consider that you might be wrong. Are you the kind of leader that has to be right? Can you keep an open mind and allow others’ opinions to influence your decisions? I am not suggesting that you shouldn’t be able to make a decision, especially in a crisis. What I am suggesting is that you do not remain so steadfast in all of your opinions that you do not listen to reason from others. Sometimes the newest member of your team may have the best solution to a problem. Are you willing to consider it?
  2. Ask a trusted peer or colleague for feedback. I hope that you have someone on your team or at your agency who will give you honest feedback. If you do, ask them for their feedback after a meeting. Does their perception of your message line up with how you intended your message to be received? One word of caution though. If you ask for honest feedback, see step one and be prepared for hearing things you may not want to hear. Getting an outside opinion of how we are perceived can help us ensure we are on the right track.
  3. Pay attention to what you don’t like in other people. Sometimes the things we dislike in others are really things we dislike about ourselves. For example, when I was a new officer and was scheduled to report for 0600, I reported for 0600. Sometimes I even reported for 0602! While serving as an FTO, I realized this was an awful example to set so I corrected that issue. Since then, if I am scheduled to be at work at 0600, I get there at 0500 or earlier. In my mind, if I am not early, I am late. In my role as a leader, I cannot stand people who are late. But in reality, if someone is scheduled for 0600 and arrives at 0600, they are on time. Thinking deeply about it, I realize that the reason I don’t like tardiness, or right on timeliness is that it’s something I disliked about myself.
  4. Remember that your position can skew your view of reality. Have you ever noticed that some people are reluctant to tell you the truth due to your position? Do you encourage open and honest feedback or do you discourage it? Your team will be less likely to be open with you if they think they will be penalized. Work diligently to ensure your team knows they can give you feedback without fear of reprisals. Otherwise, you will build a network of yes men and women and your meta-accuracy and self-awareness will suffer.
  5. Know your team and tailor your message accordingly. Do you know each member of your team, their career goals, their strengths and the areas they need to improve? Focus on learning as much as you can about the people you are responsible for. After all, your job as a leader is to help your team succeed. Knowing them well will allow you to present material in a way that meets their specific needs. We all learn differently and understanding your team will help you understand how your message will be received.

Bonus tip: Focus on changing your mindset before meeting with your team

In Louisiana, we always like to offer you a little lagniappe. For those of you outside our great state, lagniappe simply means something extra. For this article’s lagniappe, I offer a way to improve meta-accuracy by focusing on changing your mindset before meeting with your team.

As a leader, I truly love my team and work daily to help them succeed. But like you, I am human and sometimes my mood is not conducive to being a great motivator. When I find myself frustrated due to outside influences but need to interact with my team, I ask myself a simple question. “What version of Lyons does my team deserve?” This question helps me get in the right mindset as the answer is always that my team deserves the version of me that is best equipped to support their needs. I have the best team a leader can ask for and I commit daily to helping them accomplish their career goals. I encourage you to do the same.

Discussion points

After you have been a supervisor for a few months, I encourage you to ask yourself these questions that will further help your self-awareness:

  • Did your idea of what your new position would be like change after serving in that role for a few months?
  • Were you prepared for the transition?
  • What can you do to help new leaders prepare for their new role?
  • What advice would you give someone who wants to be promoted to the same role?

One of our jobs as new leaders is to ensure that we train and prepare the next generation of leaders. By answering these questions, and providing advice to future leaders, you will help improve your department and make the transition for new leaders much easier.

Click here to access the entire Leadership Development Series.

    Lyons Hale has been a sworn police officer since 1998 and currently holds the rank of captain. He has worked in a patrol capacity for most of his career and leads Louisiana’s statewide crisis negotiation team. He is also the co-founder of Juliet Lima Solutions, a law enforcement and private industry training and consulting company that offers leadership, de-escalation and emotional intelligence training. Learn more here.