Career Path

The Tricky Shift from Self-Awareness to Self-Improvement

It’s one thing to know what you need to work on. It’s an entirely different battle to actually do it.

Working in finance, Lance had developed a knack for providing smart solutions to his clients. But when it came to networking, particularly with his higher-ups, he couldn’t find his voice—which in turn hindered his ability to rise beyond his VP-level role.

It’s one thing to know what your weaknesses are, and an entirely other challenge to make a change and try to work on those weaknesses. After all, you only have to look at the fact that 80% of New Year’s resolutions fail by February to see that we have trouble turning self-awareness into self-improvement. “Even if you know the right course of action, it may still be difficult,” says Josh Daniel, a career coach at Korn Ferry Advance.

Test out what you want to change in low-stakes ways, so you can grow more comfortable with the idea.

And yet, research shows that people constantly want to improve their personalities. In one study published in the Journal of Research in Personality, 97% of respondents said they wished they were more conscientious. In another, researchers found that college students who wanted to change their personality in some way showed improvements on those alterations when they set specific goals for change. Here is some advice on how to turn self-awareness into self-improvement.

Understand where your hang-up comes from.

When we want to break a bad habit or adjust our personality in some way, the reason we fail to make a long-term fix is that we haven’t delved into real issues behind why we want to lose weight or become a better listener. With Lance, for example, he discovered that he put up a barrier at networking events by telling himself that he didn’t have the authority or right to approach the executives. “No one else was putting him in an outsider bucket, it was him,” says Mike Normant, a career coach and founder of the Unlimit Group, who worked with Lance. Once Lance realized that, he could start to weigh what actions he could take to remove that barrier.

Make (and take) concrete steps.

It can be tempting to dive into change all at once and throw out everything that you’ve done before. But career experts caution against this approach and instead recommend focusing on tackling one or two action items at a time. “Resiliency is a resource you can deplete too quickly if you try to change too much,” Daniel says. Part of deciding what steps to take involves asking yourself what path may be most productive, and also what types of consequences each action will have. For example, if you’ve been told that you repeatedly complain about a new project but don’t offer a solution, an action item could be to refrain from giving feedback about ideas until you have a solution to go with your critique.

Slowly test out your action items.

One way to stay engaged over the long time it takes to change is to treat the evolution like an experiment. Test out what you want to change in low-stakes ways, so you can grow more comfortable with the idea. So if you want to speak up more at meetings, start by trying to speak up once in each of your team’s weekly meetings instead of, say, jumping up with ideas at an all-hands event with executives. Once you’ve grown comfortable expressing yourself, you’ll feel more empowered in those meetings with higher stakes. This tactic will also help you refine your methods, if you discover that one of your actions didn’t work out so well.

Repeat, repeat, repeat.

Studies have found that it takes nearly two months to form a habit, so don’t be surprised if takes longer to change a personality trait. Of course you’re going to have setbacks, which are inevitable in periods of growth—and also crucial, signaling you to pay attention to in order to get to that next stage of change. When they do happen, check in with how you feel; if you’re angry, for example, that’s a sign you’re making a change that’s important, Daniel says. But if your misstep leads to no emotional reaction, then it’s possible you picked the wrong trait to change. In that case, you might not be “tackling something that’s core to what you want to improve,” Daniel says.

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