Despite the concepts and exercise of self-awareness and self-reflection predating HR by several centuries (if not millennia), I’m increasingly convinced few skills are more important to modern-day HR. The smartest people around have been telling people some version of “know thyself” for centuries – that particular aphorism was found carved into the temple in Delphi ruins and regularly attributed to great philosophers such as Heraclitus. Sometimes self-awareness and self-reflection are often glossed over in an HR context, which is somewhat understandable. HR, after all, is overwhelmingly focused on managing group interactions and interpersonal relationships between individuals. Nevertheless, self-reflection on the part of both HR pros and employers is an indispensable part of a successful HR strategy and department.
We’re coming right off what you might characterize as a mass self-reflection event, however dramatic that might sound. We arrived at the Great Resignation because employees across the world realized that so-called “hustle culture” was draining them for little reward, and that they couldn’t keep doing things the way they were doing them. The pandemic forced millions of people to unexpectedly and simultaneously reflect on the role of work in their individual lives, and the conclusions they came to in overwhelming numbers – not only that work isn’t everything, but that work was swallowing their other priorities – changed everything.
This level of radical self-awareness is something HR pros must keep at the forefront of their thinking if they’re going to find and retain great employees and foster healthy workplaces. Silly as it may sound, there’s real value in taking a sincere “it’s not you, it’s me” approach to HR processes and development. Great HR and great workplaces start from within.
Self-awareness is a force to be reckoned with
It’s now pretty much impossible to downplay the power of self-awareness and self-reflection in the workplace. It’s a critical soft skill, especially for HR pros. In HR, you need to have your own house in order before you can help others. You need to have a firm grip on your communication style and how you come across to others. You need to be able to seriously evaluate your own skills and strengths and weaknesses in order to get better at dealing with people effectively.
But it’s not just HR where this applies. The widespread pandemic-related realization that work isn’t everything came hand-in-hand with a new emphasis on self-care. A huge part of valuable and meaningful self-reflection and self-awareness is listening to your body and your intuition, and knowing when to take a break or step back. HR pros and employees of all kinds arrive at burnout when they ignore those signs or downplay them. That’s where self-care comes in, both as a necessary part of overall wellness and a bulwark against burnout.
Burnout and bad bosses
Burnout, however, isn’t not only the product of having too much work. It also stems from toxic workplaces. Managerial lip service about self-care and employees being transparent about their needs means nothing if the day-to-day environment is negative and punitive. In response – and after some self-reflection – employees in these situations leave these environments and they don’t look back.
Good employers and HR departments are responding to employees’ new priorities on a practical level by maintaining flexible schedules and working arrangements. But they’re also being mindful of themselves, their own communication styles, and the environment of the office at large. The tone of a workplace is set in large part by the manager and HR departments. Bad managers and HR pros create environments of distrust and anxiety, putting employees in a mindset of self-preservation and appeasement rather than collaboration and creativity.
It’s not uncommon for employees in unhealthy work situations or who are not feeling heard by management to approach HR about it, let alone whomever they report to directly. Anonymous, company-wide surveys are an effective way to let employees air genuine grievances and gauge exactly how people feel about the working environment and managers. Insofar as self-reflection is concerned, it’s crucial not only to respond to the feedback you receive on areas your employees want improved, but to cross-reference that with your own perception of what needs improvement. How aligned your own thoughts are with the responses received is a crucial (if not exactly quantifiable) metric.
Be bold about this. Anonymous employee surveys should ask directly about the effectiveness and possible shortcomings of the HR department and staff. Change comes from the top, and it comes from within. In other words, honestly evaluating your own behavior is as crucial a managerial skill as thoughtfully listening to employee feedback.
Prioritizing self-awareness for everyone’s benefit
It’s easy to forget to be deliberate about self-reflection in our jobs. Especially as HR pros, we have an endless to-do list and no shortage of fires to put out. Taking a step back, taking a breather, and being truly honest with ourselves requires a deliberate commitment and effort. A positive, receptive state of mind requires proper maintenance. Squaring that with the feedback we’re getting is the kind of inner work every manager and HR pro should be doing on a consistent basis.
The idea that change comes from within or starts with the person in the mirror is not novel. But it’s endured precisely because it’s true. The way forward in HR, in employee retention, in positive workplaces, starts with being reflective and honest with ourselves.
About the Author
Beatrice Kahl is Chief People Officer at the privacy tech company Xayn. Before joining the AI company, she worked for companies such as Fjord Design and Innovation by Accenture, Deloitte & Touche, Deutsche Telekom, and CrossEngage. At Xayn, she is responsible for all matters involving HR. Winner of the first Porsche Innovation Contest, Xayn has already worked successfully with Porsche, Daimler, Deutsche Bahn, and Siemens.
Beatrice studied International Management, and in her spare time, she enjoys hiking and traveling. She lives in Berlin.