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Opinion | Too much of self-reflection is bad for your work and health as well

Happiness doesn’t really come from within; it depends on other people

Data suggests that 95% of people believe they’re self-aware, but only 10-15% are.
Data suggests that 95% of people believe they’re self-aware, but only 10-15% are. (Photo: iStock)

They say self-reflection helps you grow but is too much of it bad? In a study, well-known organizational psychologist Tasha Eurich found that people who scored high on self-reflection were more stressed, less satisfied with their jobs and relationships, more self-absorbed, and they felt less in control of their lives. Does that mean we should stop reflecting?

According to the World Economic Forum, emotional intelligence, empathy, influence, persuasion, communication and collaboration are among the most important skills for the 21st century. All of them stem from self-awareness but data suggests that 95% of people believe they’re self-aware, but only 10-15% are. University of Sydney psychologist Anthony Grant says there is no relationship between introspection and insight. When we introspect, our response is similar to a hungry cat watching mice. We eagerly pounce on half-baked insights without questioning their validity or value. Clearly there is something wrong with the way we are reflecting.

In her study, Eurich defines self-awareness unicorns as those who were rated high in self-awareness (both by themselves and by others). She put together a group of 50 such unicorns who had started out with only low to moderate self-awareness. After analysing their speech patterns and interview transcripts, she found that unicorns reported asking “what" often and “why" rarely. In fact, the word “why" appeared less than 150 times, but the word “what" appeared more than 1,000 times.

If we want to build our introspection muscles and make reflection work for us, we need to re-pivot from “why" to “what". Asking “why" traps us into the past and makes us victims of the operating context. Framing the same question as “what" helps us take ownership of our problems. Also, it enables us to zoom out and analyse what happened with an objective lens.

This is obviously easier said than done but is surely worth a try. If we didn’t get a promotion or a raise we really wanted, asking ourselves why won’t reveal much. It is often beyond our sphere of influence. Instead, if we try and figure out what we can do to get it next time is far more helpful.

In one of my roles, I managed sales for a large public sector enterprise. My team was composed of three more people who had far more experience and expertise. I felt they were going out of their way to make things hard for me. They would cancel meetings at the last minute and invite me for negotiations knowing fully well that I was out of town attending to a different customer. For the first six months, I kept asking myself why and got nowhere. Then I re-pivoted and tried to figure what I could do to win their trust and make a functional team.

The what-centric reflection enabled me to see my blind spots. Without giving enough time to understand how they worked, I had waltzed in with my business school frameworks and strategies. I hadn’t paid enough emphasis on the fact that I was much younger, far less experienced but more senior in terms of organizational hierarchy. Only after talking about the elephant in the room and accepting my shortcomings did we start becoming closer as a team. I asked them what I did that annoyed them the most. It was hard but I saw the dynamics of our relationship change. Over the course of time, one of the team members even mentored me and offered precious advice on dealing with tricky customers. Together we went on to crack some big deals and I learnt that happiness and job satisfaction is not a solitary pursuit.

Almost every day there is a new study on happiness studies. Far from confirming that “happiness comes from within," a wide body of research tells us almost the exact opposite. Our happiness depends on other people.

What-centric reflection propels our happiness and overall satisfaction. That is why it is essential that when we reflect, we focus on our actions and try to empower the people who matter to us the most and those we spend most of our time with. Our journey towards self-awareness is both communal and incremental. We can’t become more self-aware by ourselves and we won’t wake up drastically more self-aware tomorrow. We should just aim for micro-improvements over a period of time and have the courage to embark upon that journey.

Millennial Matters recalibrates the skills needed to survive and find meaning in the workplace of tomorrow.

Utkarsh Amitabh is founder of Network Capital, a global peer mentoring community and a WEF Global Shaper.

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