According to my friend Tasha Eurich, an organizational psychologist and author, there is a clear self-awareness deficit in most of our lives. Eurich has found in her research that although nearly 90 percent of people believe they are self-aware, less than 15 percent of us actually are.

That’s a staggering deficit, one that may be holding us back from getting that next promotion, becoming a better leader or making the right decision for our career. Contrary to the saying, what we don’t know really can hurt us.

Mike Zani, CEO of Predictive Index, highlights a great way to think about self-awareness in his recent book The Science of Dream Teams. In his book, Zani shares the analogy of having different writing on the front and back of your shirt, a concept he first learned from a partner at Bain & Company.

As the analogy goes, the front of your shirt displays all the amazing things you have been told in your life and career; these things are easy for both you and others to see. However, we all have writing on the back of our shirts as well—these are the things that everyone else can see, but may be unknown to us.

If we want to become more self-aware, we need the people around us to call out what is on the back of our shirts. Here are some examples of things people can have on the back of their shirt:

  • Lets ego interfere with key decisions
  • Plays favorites with colleagues
  • Is a poor or inconsistent listener
  • Steamrolls others with their own ideas
  • Misjudges their own humor or charm

The best teammates and leaders I have worked with in my career know what’s on the back of their shirt, in large part because they welcome being informed of those blind spots. People who truly want to improve are willing to withstand the discomfort of a candid feedback discussion—and are willing to take that feedback to heart to improve.

In contrast, it’s especially difficult to work with someone who refuses to listen to or believe consistent feedback about those back-of-shirt issues. These are the people that repeat the same mistakes quarter after quarter and don’t even realize there is a problem. The result is a loss of trust and confidence from managers, colleagues or teams in the process. In extreme cases, a person might even leave their organization and seek a new job to avoid these realities.

If you are serious about taking an honest look at the back of your shirt, here are a few places to help you get started.

  • Try using the JOHARI window, a great framework for self-improvement. The main takeaway is that we can shrink our blind spots through regular demonstrations of vulnerability and sharing.
  • Seek out feedback and critique. High performers don’t surround themselves solely with people who tell them what they want to hear. They seek out people willing to tell them what they need to hear—people who will call out what’s on the back of their shirt. Both Adam Grant and Tim Ferris use the concept of a challenge network, a collection of people they trust to push and test their ideas in order to improve their work.
  • Don’t respond, or try to defend yourself, the next time someone gives you honest feedback, even if it is uncomfortable. Instead, just listen and thank them in the moment before taking the time to contemplate. Even if you don’t agree with what they say, you have been given the gift of actually knowing how they feel. If you respond negatively or defensively, it will be the last time you get that honest feedback; no one will tell you what’s on the back of your shirt directly, they will just talk about it when you aren’t around.

Remember that becoming more self-aware is not supposed to be comfortable. However, what is much more uncomfortable is being the only person in the room unaware of the reality that is clear to everyone standing behind you.

Quote of The Week

“I know that people can be better than they are. We are capable of bearing a great burden, once we discover that the burden is reality and arrive where reality is.”


– James Baldwin