From self-sabotage to superpower: Harnessing emotion with self-awareness

Here’s how to develop self-awareness, the gateway to emotional intelligence.
From self-sabotage to superpower: Harnessing emotion with self-awareness

With digitisation replacing many of the traditional accounting tasks, finance professionals must demonstrate their value and provide impact in new ways. Increasingly, finance leaders are looking for candidates who can work effectively within diverse teams, tackle uncertainty and ambiguity with confidence, and communicate with clarity in a hybrid workplace.

These demands all require a high level of emotional intelligence — the ability to perceive, use, understand, and manage emotions.

According to Sharon King Gabrielides, Ph.D., chief executive of Key Steps Corporate Training, a leadership coaching and development consultancy based in South Africa, the first step towards increasing emotional intelligence is the development of greater self-awareness — which can be defined as a conscious awareness of your internal states and feelings, as well as the ability to perceive your own personality traits, behavioural patterns, and motivations.

Yet for finance professionals, developing emotional intelligence, or EQ, and “soft skills” can appear to be a vague and intangible task — and one that is difficult to prioritise amidst the rigorous demands of the modern workplace.

According to King Gabrielides, the first step is to acknowledge that EQ is no longer a “soft skill”, but is an essential hard skill — something that needs to be assessed, measured, and taught at every level within organisations.

“The starting point is to develop self-awareness, which is the foundation of emotional intelligence and the gateway to personal and professional development,” King Gabrielides said.

Scott Dust, Ph.D., Raymond E. Glos Professor of Management in the Farmer School of Business at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, explained that the past year has exposed vulnerabilities and emotional blind spots — prompting many leaders to begin to explore the link between self-awareness and high performance at work.

“You cannot support and contribute to teams in ways that you’re really capable of unless you’re developing this skill,” he said.

FM spoke to King Gabrielides and Dust to find out how finance professionals can build and sustain self-awareness, and bring a more empathetic and perceptive approach to the workplace.

Identify your blind spots. By learning to identify the signs that your self-awareness could be lacking, you are more likely to rally yourself into action and recognise where you need to improve.

“One of the most common signs or red flags is a sense of stagnation, unfulfillment, or dissatisfaction … along with the feeling of being constantly misunderstood,” Dust explained.

“Another telltale sign is a distinct lack of motivation and constant indecision,” King Gabrielides added. “Research has demonstrated that people with self-awareness have the confidence to be proactive and decisive — harnessing their emotions to move into action.”

At work, begin to notice if you become defensive in certain scenarios, look to blame others, or frequently feel the need to justify your actions, she advised. Between meetings and interactions with colleagues, give yourself a few minutes of quiet time to reflect and to note any challenging and unexpected emotions or behaviours that were evoked.

Explore and confront limiting beliefs. To deepen self-awareness, professionals not only have to examine their way of relating to others, but they also have to explore their way of relating to themselves, King Gabrielides said. For instance, everyone has deeply ingrained beliefs and inner dialogues that limit and even sabotage potential. A core component of self-awareness is identifying these beliefs or “mistaken certainties” and learning to challenge them.

According to King Gabrielides, limiting beliefs often come in clusters. For example, believing you need to regularly respond to emails after hours could be coupled with the belief that you need to work extra hard to be successful — and that you have to achieve success in this way in order to be valued by others.

“The next step is to challenge your limiting belief or assumption in a calm, thoughtful, and nonjudgemental way,” she explained. “By doing this thoroughly, you will educate and empower your thinking, cast doubt on the limiting belief, and displace thoughts that don’t serve you.”

While this sounds simple, beliefs are slippery and people are more inclined to look for evidence to support them rather than cast doubt on them, King Gabrielides cautioned. She pointed out a key site that can support with this process and noted that working with a professional coach can assist with accelerating your transformation.

By confronting and displacing limiting beliefs, you can mitigate the anxieties and fears that they induce — and that distort an authentic relationship with yourself and with others. This authentic relationship is what allows self-awareness to deepen on a day-to-day basis.

Take stock of your needs. According to Dust, many professionals lack real insight into what motivates them at work and what their core needs are. By taking the time to assess and pinpoint these needs, professionals will deepen their self-awareness and understanding of themselves in the work environment.

“Too often, we don’t define which part of our work scenario is the true source of our frustration or stress — and we risk moving onto the next role or task without addressing the underlying issue,” he said.

Dust pointed to research that has shown that autonomy, competence, and relatedness are the key factors that determine motivation and engagement.

“Every individual has some need for these three buckets to be fulfilled, although at varying degrees for each,” he added. By taking time to pinpoint and assess each factor as it relates to your current work scenario (and being honest about your needs), you can begin to understand where the gaps lie in how your job or role is structured.

For instance, “relatedness” refers to your sense of connection with your colleagues and organisation — and you may uncover that you need more high-quality interactions and a deeper sense of connection.

Similarly, you may discover that too much autonomy (particularly in the context of remote work) is prompting lower levels of motivation. With regard to competence, how much growth and learning are you pursuing in your current role — and is this enough?

As part of this self-audit process, Dust recommended making use of human capital assessments.

Build in decompression time. Once you have identified emotional blind spots and the circumstances, thoughts, or scenarios that throw you off balance, Dust said the next step is to learn to “self-regulate”. “This is the ability to engage in behavioural modifications, in the moment, that bring you back to a place of awareness and control,” he said.

One of the most accessible ways of self-regulating emotions at work is to practise the 4-7-8 breathing technique. Also known as “relaxing breath”, this involves breathing in for 4 seconds, holding the breath for 7 seconds, and exhaling for 8 seconds.

“By practising this technique, we teach our body that we can become aware and regulate our emotional state very quickly. The trick is to use this technique on an ongoing basis, as frequently as once every hour,” King Gabrielides said.

In the context of remote work, when many people are booked into back-to-back meetings, she reiterated the importance of building in a few minutes of breathing and “decompression” time before the next meeting as an essential self-care and self-regulation practice. By continuously reconnecting with themselves in this way, professionals can maintain a high level of self-awareness throughout the workday.

Practise daily reflection. “One of the core pillars of high self-awareness is regular and disciplined self-reflection,” Dust said. “While taking assessments is one form of reflection, journaling is another powerful tool for uncovering and understanding what’s really going on.”

When journaling, make it intentional by employing certain techniques such as labelling your feelings and building up a wider emotional vocabulary. “A daily self-reflection practice will help you to recognise patterns and become familiar with your internal dialogue,” King Gabrielides said. If you prefer to use voice notes or recordings as a form of reflection, she suggested using a transcription tool so that you’re able to “see your thoughts” in front of you.

“Many of us have not been taught to identify and discuss our feelings, but it’s a healthy and powerful practice that builds self-awareness — often by helping us to recognise the irrational thoughts and internal stories that corrode our confidence.”

Creating time for activities that promote mindfulness such as meditation and solitary walks are also valuable ways to practise self-reflection. With all of these practices, the key aspect is to quiet one’s internal chatter through observation and by maintaining present moment awareness.

Jessica Hubbard is a freelance writer based in France. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at