McKinsey Quarterly

Developing dual awareness

| Article

In their new book, Deliberate Calm: How to Learn and Lead in a Volatile World (HarperCollins Publishers, November 2022), authors Jacqueline Brassey, Aaron De Smet, and Michiel Kruyt investigate a concept they call “dual awareness,” the integrated awareness of our external and internal environments and how they affect each other. With this awareness, we are able to access a state in which we can act with intention and perform at our best no matter what is going on around us. This requires a certain detachment from our feelings and thoughts, where we can observe ourselves having an experience and can observe our feelings and thoughts about that experience. We still feel emotions, and we still may think negative or hurtful thoughts, but we can notice and accept those thoughts without fully identifying with them. We are in a position to choose a response instead of fully identifying with and getting swept away by our emotions and reacting out of habit.

The ability to do this amid changing, complex circumstances is a critical part of leading with deliberate calm through uncertainty. It has never been more important than at a time like now—when corporate resilience is challenged by what many executives consider the most difficult operating environment they have ever encountered. In this excerpt from Deliberate Calm, we look at how leaders can go through five levels of awareness on their way to developing dual awareness.

Simone simply cannot believe what she is hearing. She looks at Jonathan, her product design lead, and shakes her head in disappointment. The healthcare company they work for is undergoing a digital transformation that involves creating new software to change how the company engages with and supports healthcare providers and patients. Simone is a senior vice president in charge of both the department that is developing the new software, applications, and features and the department responsible for embedding these products into the business. It’s critical for the company that customers start using these new products at scale to meet market demands, grow the business, and give the company access to valuable patient and healthcare data.

For months, there has been tension, disagreement, and strong emotions between the two departments that Simone leads, and she is beyond frustrated. She is doing everything she can to support her people, often staying up late to complete work when one of them seems overwhelmed. But no matter what she does, they keep falling further and further behind schedule. Now Jonathan is telling Simone that his team was not able to include a critical feature in the latest iteration of the software. Worst of all, he is telling her this on the very day that they are presenting the updated version to the rest of the team, when it is too late for her to do anything about it.

“Why am I just hearing about this now?” Simone asks, slightly raising her voice. “I would have happily stepped in to help make this happen, but now it’s too late, and we’re set up to fail in this meeting.” She keeps going, seemingly without taking a breath, and her voice grows louder. “If we can’t get this new software off the ground, they could just decide to kill the whole thing. We could all lose our jobs.” Why does her team keep letting her down and bringing problems to her at the last possible moment? No matter what she does, circumstances keep conspiring against her. Or maybe the team just isn’t up to this task and she needs to find new leaders.

Jonathan sighs as he gathers his belongings and leaves Simone’s office. He knows that he should have told her about the missing feature sooner. Instead, he focused on the many other improvements that his team was able to make. In his view, there are a number of areas where team members overdelivered, and this outweighs the one area where they underdelivered. But he never had this conversation with Simone, because, in truth, he had been dreading her reaction.

Book jacket of Deliberate Calm

Deliberate Calm

The key to leading through volatility comes from within.

Whenever the team is struggling with a setback or obstacle, Simone gets agitated and ends up making the situation worse. He and his team hate to disappoint her, but during a major transformation like this, things rarely go perfectly according to plan. Setbacks are inevitable, but whenever they do raise an issue, Simone is disappointed and jumps right to the worst-case scenario. This leaves the team feeling demoralized. As a result, Jonathan finds himself trying to solve issues on his own, even when raising them with Simone sooner would give her an opportunity to help and perhaps give them all a better chance of success.

From Simone’s point of view, she is doing everything right. She is showing her team how much she cares, she is constantly offering to help, and she is asking tough questions to get to the root of problems and get results. Yet, Jonathan feels that Simone is contributing to many of the team’s problems, if not directly causing them. She blames the team for failing to surface issues sooner, while he feels that she exacerbates the problems that do come to her by expressing her own strong reactions.

Our behaviors are like the tip of an iceberg, visible to an outside observer, and perhaps to ourselves. But underneath the “waterline” of our personal iceberg lies the bulk of our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, mindsets, and core identities.

Awareness level 1: Unaware

Simone is operating at the first of five levels of awareness that we travel through as we go from lacking awareness to practicing dual awareness. At level 1, Simone functions largely on autopilot. She looks at the world through her own lens and assumes that she is seeing the objective reality and responding appropriately. She is blind to the impact that her behavior has on herself and others, and largely unaware of her own hidden iceberg.

(Our behaviors are like the tip of an iceberg, visible to an outside observer, and perhaps to ourselves. But underneath the “waterline” of our personal iceberg lies the bulk of our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, mindsets, and core identities. Whether or not we are aware of it, these deeper, largely unconscious layers are constantly driving our visible behaviors. Our hidden iceberg below the surface is at the root of our ongoing patterns of behaviors and actions, our decisions, and how we navigate the world throughout our lives.)

Simone genuinely wants to help her team when they encounter setbacks and challenges, but she fails to recognize how her behavior makes it less likely that they will ask for help. She attributes this to their behavioral and leadership shortcomings, failing to see that in many ways it is actually a response to her behavior and leadership style. This is why the same challenges keep coming up for her across multiple teams and situations.

At this level of awareness, when we observe others’ behavior, we see it as a reflection of their personality, their competence, their choices, or their character. We attribute their actions more to the person than to their situation. Yet, we attribute our own actions more to the situation and circumstances. We judge ourselves on our intention, yet we judge others on their behavior. In social psychology, this is called the fundamental attribution error. When we make this error, we are more likely to make excuses for our own behavior and let ourselves off the hook while judging and blaming others for their behavior.

As we develop dual awareness, we are able to change this by slowing down and better observing the situation we are in, our internal reactions, and our related behavior. As we do so, we also gain empathy for other people’s behavior. And when we intentionally act with empathy and open our minds to other people’s points of view, we can gain insight into our own behavior and how it affects others, increasing our self-awareness.

Later that afternoon Simone receives a text from Jonathan. “Hey, Simone,” it reads, “for this meeting, if you have a lot of criticism, it would be great if you could hold off and tell me after. Then I’ll share it with the team when they’re in a better place.”

Simone finds Jonathan’s request reasonable enough, but she has a nagging feeling that there may be more here than meets the eye. Perhaps, she realizes, there is some feedback in there for her about how she interacts with the team and gives constructive criticism.

After the meeting, Simone asks Jonathan to come back to her office. “Before I give you my feedback on the presentation,” she says, “I’m wondering what is going on with the team that would make them so fragile that we have to do this offline? Or maybe there is a way I can deliver my criticism differently, so I don’t have to share everything negative with you and then have you relay it to them separately.”

Jonathan recognizes that this is his chance to say some things he has been holding back for a while, but he is also feeling a bit nervous about how Simone will react. He proceeds cautiously. “Maybe you can try not to show your frustration so much on your face,” he says hesitantly, “and try to maintain a calm tone. My team doesn’t like to disappoint you, and when you look frustrated it can be really hard for them to open up.”

“I stay calm, don’t I?” Simone asks. “I mean, I’m not yelling and screaming. We’re just talking.”

“Maybe you don’t notice,” Jonathan replies, “but when you get frustrated you start talking faster. Your voice goes up a notch, you start clenching your teeth a little, and it puts the team on edge.”

This is news to Simone. “OK,” she says, taking a deep sigh and nodding her head as she takes his words in. “What else?”

“Well,” Jonathan says slowly, “when you mention all of the terrible things that might happen if we don’t succeed, that can be really tough. The stakes already feel high, and the team hates to disappoint you. At the last team meeting about the new technology, you said that if it fails, basically the whole company might fall apart. One of my people was crying after that. She was worried about losing her job.”

“Oh.” Simone is quiet for a moment. “I did not realize that. Thank you, Jonathan,” she says. “I’ll give this some more thought.”

Simone has trouble sleeping that night. At first, she wonders if Jonathan and his team are just being overly sensitive. Why are they reacting so strongly to a facial expression? But she admits that his words must have some truth to them. She wonders if it’s possible that she is actually contributing to her team’s problems.

The next day, Simone sits down with the five senior leaders on her team to discuss the latest iteration of the new software. Tempers flare. The people who need to incorporate the product into the business are angry that their feedback has once again been ignored. Maya, a leader responsible for embedding the software into the business and getting access to critical data, stands up during the meeting. “You just aren’t listening,” she says to Jonathan. “You have not incorporated our feedback again! We can’t use this!”

“But we did incorporate your feedback, all of it!” Jonathan says. “It’s not perfect, but it works. Every must-have feature you prioritized is in there. Even though we said we could only include two or three new features in this release, we included all six. And they all work. What you’re asking for is totally unrealistic.”

“Again, you are not hearing me,” says Maya, sitting back down looking exasperated. “If our users have to click through that many screens, and getting to the report they want is that counterintuitive, what’s the point? It needs to be one click, easy, and intuitive.”

Simone has been trying to let them work it out, but she cannot watch this back-and-forth any longer. “That’s enough,” she interjects. “Quit blaming each other and take some accountability to solve this together. If this was the most important thing, Maya, why were we trying to do six ‘must-have’ features instead of just nailing this one? You and your team need to stop creating unrealistic wish lists of every possible thing and focus on the few critical things. And, Jonathan, honestly, I agree with Maya. You’re not listening. Obviously, this is way too clunky. And now we’re at the brink. If we lose two customers for every new one we gain, we might as well just pack up our stuff and go home. Start working together and figure it out!”

With that, Simone gets up and storms out, with her heart beating quickly. She tells herself that this was exactly the kind of tough love they needed. But after Simone is back in her office, she closes the door and sits down with a sinking feeling. She wonders, Was this the sort of behavior that Jonathan was talking about? She wishes she could take back what she’d said, or at least go back and say it in a calmer tone. She’s also wondering how often she actually does this. Jonathan just gave her that feedback yesterday, and she’s behaved in the exact way he described the very next day. Perhaps she is doing this more often than she realized.

It can be difficult to receive negative feedback, but feedback plus reflection can help us become aware of unhelpful behavior patterns that might otherwise escape our attention.

Awareness level 2: Delayed

Jonathan’s feedback has begun to bridge the gap between Simone’s level 1 of awareness and level 2, where we become aware after the fact that we have acted with habitual and often ineffective behaviors, and then wish we had said or done something differently.

It can be difficult to receive negative feedback, but feedback plus reflection can help us become aware of unhelpful behavior patterns that might otherwise escape our attention. As Simone experiences, the feedback that hurts the most is often the greatest gift of all.

Receiving feedback, however, does not mean that we have to agree with or act on it. If your aunt gives you an unattractive sweater as a holiday gift, you can thank her for it, but you don’t have to wear it. That sweater may be a reflection of her taste and not really say anything about you. The person giving feedback is operating from their own invisible iceberg, so their perception is not objective. No one’s is. But even if we decide that a piece of feedback has been deeply skewed by the other person’s lens on reality, it can still be helpful to know that someone sees things this way. There is really no such thing as unhelpful feedback.

In 1955, psychologists Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham developed a tool called the Johari Window to help people understand their relationships with themselves and others. The Johari Window consists of four quadrants: things about us that are known to others but not to us (blind spots); things about us that are not known to others or to us (unknown or undiscovered information); things about us that are known to us but not known to others (façade or private information); and things about us that are known to us and to others (arena or shared understanding).

The bigger the shared-understanding quadrant, the more potential a relationship has. When we listen to feedback from others, we grow the shared-understanding quadrant by shrinking the blind-spot quadrant. And when we share openly about ourselves with others, we grow the shared-understanding quadrant by shrinking the façade quadrant.

By pulling on the string of Jonathan’s feedback, Simone has grown the shared-understanding space between the two of them and has become aware of one of her blind spots. Back in her office, she reflects on the meeting and realizes that she had felt disappointed and frustrated and had shown those feelings openly. She had spoken quickly and loudly, and her closing comment about packing up could be seen as shutting the whole operation down, catastrophizing a worst-case scenario. This was all very much in line with the feedback from Jonathan.

The five levels of awareness: People who develop dual awareness respond effectively in the moment.

Simone considers other ways she might have responded. She could have calmly asked questions to try to help surface the collaboration and prioritization issues. She could have talked about the higher purpose of helping healthcare providers and improving patient outcomes and dropped the part about potentially closing shop. She might have talked about creative near-term improvements and asked how she could help accelerate them.

Although she isn’t aware in the moment, this level 2 delayed awareness is a crucial part of Simone’s learning process.

As we practice observing ourselves from a distance, we can learn to quickly recognize that we are shifting into protection.

Awareness level 3: Perceptive

Soon, Simone begins to notice her own patterns of behavior in real time. When she receives disappointing news or is unhappy with what someone on her team is telling her, she starts to catch herself. She becomes aware of warning signals like her jaw tensing up and her heart beating more quickly. She starts noticing if she is blaming other people and spiraling into worst-case scenarios.

This is Simone at awareness level 3. She is observing herself in the moment and becoming conscious of the circumstances that trigger her to shift into a state of protection, with its habitual feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. She is learning to recognize the cues alerting her to that shift.

These cues can come from our bodies and our minds, and/or from observing our own behavior. Cues from the body can include tension building up in our shoulders, necks, or stomachs, trembling or sweaty palms, clenching our jaws, breathing from our chest as opposed to our belly, an increased heart rate, and shallow breathing. Cues from the mind often include negative thoughts, particularly about other people, and defending your own position at all costs. Behavioral clues might include a change in our tone of voice, yelling, shutting down, and avoidance. As we practice observing ourselves from a distance, we can learn to quickly recognize that we are shifting into protection.

Like many of us, Simone gets a bit stuck at this level of awareness. It can be intensely uncomfortable to watch ourselves act in an unhelpful way and yet feel unable to shift. It’s easy to blame or deny or self-justify in these situations. But if we can instead sit with this discomfort, it is the gateway to greater awareness.

At this level, there are times when Simone is able to dampen her response—when she raises her voice, it’s not quite as loud as it was before, for example—but in general, she is still in a state of protection and does not know how to pivot to learning. She is trying to intervene at the behavioral level, but her beliefs and mindsets are still driving her old patterns. To create real change, she must look at what is frozen beneath the waterline of her iceberg. This is why our resolutions so often fail. We make a behavioral-change commitment without looking at the drivers of this behavior. With time, Simone starts to wonder, What is going on with me that is causing me to get so frustrated that I am no longer helping my team?

Simone has a close mentor within the company named Marcia, and she asks her to meet for lunch. Over their meal, Simone fills Marcia in on what has been going on with her and with the team. “I try to lead them and coach them,” Simone tells Marcia, “but sometimes I shut them down without meaning to. It’s like I can’t help myself when I feel that we’re falling behind.”

Marcia asks, “What behaviors exactly do you want to change?”

After some thought, Simone says, “I don’t want to raise my voice. I don’t want to catastrophize or show my emotions so openly, especially my disappointment and frustration.”

“OK,” Marcia says. “Well, what would you rather do instead?”

Simone considers this for a moment. “Ask more questions. Stay calm and positive. Motivate the team without scaring them. I don’t mean for it to happen, but when things don’t go well, I think my team feels like I’m angry and disappointed in them.”

“What are you feeling in those moments?” Marcia asks her. “Are you actually feeling angry and disappointed?”

“Yes,” Simone says without hesitation.

“With your team?”

“Well, yes, no, not entirely,” Simone says carefully. She lets out a big sigh. “To be honest, I used to be frustrated with my team members’ behaviors, but in this case I was really angry with myself. I feel like if I was a good enough leader, I should be able to lead the team to find the answers and collaborate better so there wouldn’t be so many surprises and setbacks. Deep down, when this is happening, I feel like a failure, and then I start feeling pretty emotional about that and wanting to fix it. But I don’t know how, so my frustration and anxiety levels just go through the roof.” Simone pauses, and then says, “I guess I’ve been holding on to the idea that I’m personally accountable for everything that happens within my team, so I blame myself when things don’t go well.”

Simone has identified her default mindset: To be an effective leader, my team needs to be successful and deliver on its promises. When she is operating from this mindset and something negative or surprising happens, Simone reacts emotionally because her self-worth feels threatened and the stakes seem enormous.

To be clear, the question is not whether a mindset is right or wrong. The question is whether or not the mindset is serving us. Is it leading to behavior that gets the results we want? Her leadership mindset has at times served Simone well. It has helped her to step up and proactively take ownership in many difficult situations. But now that Simone is a senior leader facing more adaptive challenges, she is removed from the day-to-day details and needs to deliver results through her team. Her role and her circumstances have outgrown her mindset.

Marcia and Simone discuss what other mindsets might serve Simone better in this situation. Finally, Simone says, “As a leader, my job is to create an open, collaborative learning environment so my team can surface shortfalls or deviations quickly and work together to solve challenges and deliver results. My role is to coach and guide them, remove obstacles, help them get at root causes, and also to replace leaders who are not up to the task—not to take ownership or base my worth as a leader on their ability to deliver.”

Marcia and Simone then talk about what might happen if Simone operated from this mindset. It’s important to visualize ourselves exhibiting the behaviors we want to emulate, as it creates new neural connections in our brains. “I could push the team hard but calmly,” Simone says, “by asking questions in a way that feels aspirational, meaning I have high expectations and a sense of curiosity and compassion but no personal judgment. So, hopefully the team will feel challenged without taking it personally or getting defensive.”

Leaders often want to move forward and get to solutions as quickly as possible. However, during times of stress it is essential to pause in order to move faster. Slow down to speed up.

Awareness level 4: Resilient

Simone is committed to doing whatever she can to exhibit her desired leadership behavior and stop contributing to the tension on her team. She often succeeds, but she gets upset when she still finds herself carried away by her emotions and reverting to her protection behaviors during certain challenges.

After this happens a few times, Simone develops a “trick”: she observes herself in meetings, and instead of reacting when she catches herself getting emotional, she takes a “time-out.” Then she goes to the restroom or suggests that the team take a bathroom break. Once alone, she takes a few deep breaths, splashes some cold water on her face, and takes stock of what is happening inside and around her. She asks herself how she is feeling and why she is feeling that way, and allows those emotions to pass through her. She is surprised to see that when she does this, her emotions generally fade very quickly.

Once she has calmed down, Simone works on reframing the situation at hand. Instead of thinking about whom she can blame or what her team’s current problem says about her as a leader, she asks herself what she can learn from this and how she can best coach her team through this challenge.

These small breaks help Simone redirect and choose the best response instead of acting from a place of emotion. The more she succeeds and is able to respond calmly to surprises and challenges, the more the tension among her team members starts easing up just a bit. And with practice, Simone is able to work through her reframing process more quickly.

Still, sometimes Simone reacts out of emotion even after a time-out. When she reflects on these moments, she realizes that this tends to happen when she takes action without fully accepting the situation for what it is.

Leaders often want to move forward and get to solutions as quickly as possible. However, during times of stress it is essential to pause in order to move faster. Slow down to speed up. A real-time pause allows us to decouple from the immediate challenge and the protection state we may enter as a result, engage the parts of our brains in charge of executive functioning, and explore new options and ways of responding. The more we do this, the better we are able to interrupt the well-grooved habits that are activated under stress and create space to try a new lens that allows us to see and respond to the world differently.

This is a dynamic process that is not always linear. When we begin developing awareness, we rarely go straight from one level to the next and often fall back a level or even two as our context and circumstances change. It is as if we are playing the children’s board game Chutes and Ladders. We climb up a ladder with practice and hard work, and then we slide back down the chute as we face a new adaptive challenge that activates our hidden iceberg in unforeseen ways. We do this again and again, but even when we slide all the way down, we are not starting over completely. Each time we start traveling up a new ladder, we can do so more quickly.

When we begin developing awareness, we rarely go straight from one level to the next and often fall back a level or even two as our context and circumstances change.

Awareness level 5: Adaptive

Over time, Simone has fewer and fewer moments when she needs to pause, calm down, and reframe the situation. And when she does, she is able to move through this cycle quickly. But it still happens more often than she’d like. So, she begins a new practice of looking ahead at her day in the morning to pinpoint the moments when she is likely to be challenged. As she identifies them, she is able to reframe them in advance from a calm physiological state before ever feeling threatened. When the moment arrives later on, she is ready and armed to face it with her chosen mindset and behaviors. It is almost as if she is bypassing her body’s stress response by taking a time-out before the stressful moment instead of in the middle of it. And this goes a long way toward helping her reach awareness level 5.

At this level, Simone is able to shift to the learning state without taking a time-out. She not only is aware of herself and her circumstances in the moment but can respond effectively as well. Simone thinks of this as being able to “catch the arrow” as it is flying toward her. Without pausing, without panicking, and without missing a beat, she can sense herself becoming stressed in the very early stages, reframe the situation, and respond before her body elicits a full-blown stress response.

Over time, Simone no longer needs to reframe. Her new mindset is simply how she identifies as a leader. She acts in ways that create a safer environment for her team to share setbacks and challenges. Her response isn’t to feel frustrated or to take the entire burden onto herself but to get into a constructive problem-solving mode while keeping accountability with the team.

Of course, there are times when she ends up sliding down another chute. When Simone finds out that Jonathan’s team has missed a deadline and didn’t even tell her about it, she needs to take a few moments to breathe deeply and remind herself of how she wants to show up as a leader. They don’t always tell me about problems, because I have a history of reacting badly, she reminds herself. She manages to stay calm as she asks Jonathan and his team about what happened. But it’s bad. The missed deadline puts the company in a real bind, and it could have serious consequences.

In the past, when Jonathan’s team didn’t deliver, Simone blamed herself. But now she can clearly see that despite her efforts to help him grow and develop, Jonathan’s talents are better suited for another role. It’s very difficult for Simone to replace Jonathan, and a part of her still feels like a failure for not being able to get him to where he needed to be. But she is aware of the reality of the situation, she is aware of her feelings and thoughts about the situation, she is aware of where these feelings and thoughts are coming from, and she is able to make what she truly believes is the best decision for her team and for the people her company is trying to serve.

Replacing Jonathan is an important action that Simone would not have been able to make when she was operating from her iceberg patterns. Collaboration immediately begins to improve between the two departments she leads, and meetings don’t have the negative emotional charge that they used to. They’re still facing challenges, and the new product has not yet been incorporated into the business, but they’re in a much better position, and the team seems confident that they will ultimately rise to the challenge.

Simone incorporates more and more techniques into her daily life to continue practicing dual awareness. She can see that it has all been worth it when she receives a small piece of feedback from Jonathan’s replacement, Lisa. After she has been onboarded and is in the flow of her new role, Lisa tells Simone how much she appreciates her approach. “Thanks for pushing me,” Lisa says at the end of one of their one-on-ones. “When my old boss questioned me, I always felt like a failure. But you just make me feel like you really care.”

“I do,” Simone says, smiling as she takes in the small win. “Thanks, Lisa.” And she gets back to work.

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