Can You “Fix” Colleagues Who Aren’t Self-Aware?

Published July 13, 2017

What if you work for, or with, a colleague or leader whose lack of Emotional Self-Awareness gets in the way of their effectiveness?

  • Is there anything you can do to help that person become more self-aware?
  • Regardless of whether they change, how can you manage your own experience of working with them?

Emotional Self-Awareness: A Key to Effective Leadership

Emotional Self-Awareness is one of 12 crucial competencies in my Emotional and Social Leadership Competency Model. Leaders with this skill recognize their own feelings and how those feelings impact the people around them and their job performance. When your boss or colleagues demonstrate Emotional Self-Awareness, they are better able to act with Emotional Self-Control, another crucial emotional intelligence competency. That shows up in behavior as a sense of calm, clarity and open communication.

When colleagues aren’t skilled in Emotional Self-Awareness, they may think they’re being “assertive” in expressing themselves while their colleagues experience them as bullies or tyrants.

How do people behave toward someone who has low self-awareness? Depending on the situation, colleagues may avoid interactions with them, not share important information or distrust them. This discord hinders progress in achieving the group’s goals.

For leaders, having the trust of their subordinates and open lines of communication are crucial. These are points I discussed with my colleague George Kohlrieser in the Crucial Competence and Emotional Intelligence in Leadership video series. Professor Kohlrieser, of the International Institute for Management Development (IMD), shared research he conducted with 1,000 executives from around the world, including top leaders like CEOs and Board members. His research found high-performing leaders are a “secure base” for their teams—and highlighted the importance of leaders’ self-awareness and the trust they inspire.

Beyond Being “Just an Annoyance”

Working with someone who has low Emotional Self-Awareness isn’t just an annoyance for co-workers, it impacts everyone’s ability to perform well in their work. Research by Korn Ferry Hay Group and others show that a leader’s high Emotional Self-Awareness contributes to overall performance.

How to Deal with That “Unaware” Colleague

What can you do if you work with colleagues lacking in Emotional Self-Awareness? First, it is important to recognize that while you might try to help your colleague develop greater self-awareness, it is up to them to change. You might be able to impact awareness, but they must choose what to do with that awareness. You may not be able to impact their behavior. But what you can impact is your own experience of the situation.

One way to help your colleague is to give them honest and caring feedback in private. This depends on the nature of your relationship with that person. The best approach is for someone person likes and trusts to take them aside and tell them what the trouble is, how they are impacting other people, and what would be better—for everyone’s benefit. It might help to first ask if it’s ok to share some feedback with them, so they can be prepared to listen. For someone who is reactive, this is better than surprising them when they don’t expect it.

In the case of an overly “assertive” manager, a trusted colleague might point out that yelling isn’t having the desired impact on staff and suggest other ways to express himself to get the desired effect. Providing a specific alternative to the harmful behavior can be very effective. Perhaps that trusted colleague could share George Kohlrieser’s recent article about how to develop self-awareness, and suggest discussing other ways to get results.

Focus on What’s Within Your Control

The one thing over which you have complete control is your own reaction to the world around you. The unaware colleague is probably only one of many stressors you face. How do you manage your own reactions, not just to this person but those other stressors as well? Mindfulness can help you be less reactive in general, which means you can still do your best work, no matter what’s happening around you, or at least be able to brush it off at the end of the day.

What is mindfulness? Recognizing that our minds wander about 50% of the time, “mindfulness” refers to that move where you notice your mind wandered and bring it back to your focus. With mindfulness, you monitor whatever goes on within the mind. It sounds simple, but it is more challenging to put into practice. The way I learned mindfulness is through meditating, sitting quietly, and stepping back from a busy brain to focus on the present moment. My associate, Mirabai Bush, created a series of audio exercises to learn to practice mindfulness at work. Developing a mindfulness practice can help you remain calm and be your most productive regardless of your colleagues’ levels of self-awareness—or whatever the challenges might be.

For more in-depth information, I invite you to read my first release specifically focused on Self-Awareness in leadership, a Primer on Emotional Self-Awareness.

About the Author(s)
Daniel Goleman

Daniel Goleman

Psychologist & Author

Daniel Goleman is an internationally known psychologist who lectures frequently to professional groups, business audiences and on college campuses. As a science journalist, Goleman reported on the brain and behavioral sciences for The New York Times for many years. His 1995 book, Emotional Intelligence was on The New York Times bestseller list for a year-and-a-half, with more than 5,000,000 copies in print worldwide in 40 languages, and has been a bestseller in many countries. Apart from his books on emotional intelligence, Goleman has written books on topics of self-deception, creativity, transparency, meditation, social and emotional learning, eco-literacy and the ecological crisis.

Years at GLS 2002

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