Leadership and development: how to challenge preconceptions about yourself using the Johari Window technique

stereotypes at work
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Perception is a powerful thing in business, but understanding how you are perceived is only half the battle. Changing preconceptions and facilitating personal growth requires a deeper level of understanding.

We all have blind spots and when they’re exposed it can be quite a shock. It’s like when you catch sight of the back of your head in a mirror. The back of your head is with you all day long, but actually seeing it was it looks like can give you a jolt – as if your view of the world has just been proven wrong.

To help work through these issues, psychologists Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham came up with The Johari Window, a technique that helps people to better understand their relationship with themselves and with others.

The Johari Window is an information processing tool for the purpose of self-awareness, personal and group development and strengthening trusting relationships. Here's what it looks like:

Johari Window simple

In the context of leadership development, the blind spot pane is where real learning and growth can happen.

A catalyst for change

Fresh insights about how you are perceived by others from colleagues, a training event or a 360-degree feedback can provide a useful catalyst for transformation.

Insights alone will not guarantee growth, as the emotional response and resistance that comes with such surprises can often get in the way of moving forward.

Careful coaching and support will help, as will a context of exploration and experimentation that will give people the choice and chance to analyse what these new insights might mean.

The blind spot is not the only transformational pane, however. There is also the area where ‘you know’ and ‘others do not know.’ This is the stuff you are hiding, your façade. These are where you are pretending or simply not sharing – deliberately or otherwise – and it can be equally interesting.

Just because a whole community or group of people categorises you a certain way, does not mean it is so. It could be a group delusion. The box you have been put into may be accepted and agreed by everyone, but it does not have to continue like this.

If others think you are coping when you very much feel that you are not, then this is likely to lead to misunderstandings. The belief is that the more you are known and understood by people working around you, the more effective you can be.

Alignment of views in a 360-degree report will imply a clear and understood way of working. If others understand your struggles, they can help, support and compensate better than otherwise.

If you are fully aware and accept these weaknesses, then conversations around it will be straightforward and constructive. Without full alignment, things get tricky.

The aim of an effective 360 process is to expand this area of agreed and accepted alignment. Simply put, if they ‘get’ the real you, you are dealing with more of the truth than mild delusion or pretence.

Shades of grey

This may be useful but, in giving 360 feedback to hundreds of senior managers, I discovered there were shades of grey between these panes of distinction.

You might have three characteristics that are ‘known’ by other people such as that you are tall, dedicated to your job and ambitious, but the truth is less definitive than it seems.

They might know you are 5ft 9” tall as a fact, but whether this is ‘tall’ or not becomes a matter of judgment and comparison – connected to how tall they are, as well as those in the immediate environment and the expectation projected onto you from reputation, position etc.

Clarity about who and what we are may be useful and confronting, but it prevents full exploration at the same time.

Bearing in mind that height is perhaps the most objective of the three ‘known’ characteristics, and it’s clear how complicated this can get. Perspectives are really just that – opinions, judgments and thoughts. Relating to them as ‘known’ and true does not make them actually so.

This is the area of stereotypes and bias. Just because a whole community or group of people categorises you a certain way, does not mean it is so. It could be a group delusion. The box you have been put into may be accepted and agreed by everyone, but it does not have to continue like this.

Modifying perceptions

These grey areas can be seen in the modified Johari Window below.

Johari Window complex

The boxes we find ourselves in are very powerful. They form us and inform others. They restrict us and strengthen our self-image at the same time.

Clarity about who and what we are may be useful and confronting, but it prevents full exploration at the same time.

Experience of labelling can show you how powerful this dynamic is in our community. You may have noticed others treat you differently if you change from being single to being in a couple, from being well to being ill, or from being successful to having failed.

I had a well-defined label imposed upon me when I worked in the US for a few years. The label was ‘arrogant, detached, aloof, organised and authoritative’ – none of which I would have used to describe me in the UK. All my new American colleagues seemed to be aligned and agreed on this viewpoint though.

It took months to discover this labelling, but I felt I was becoming these things and I certainly also felt the consequences of being considered these. It was very unpleasant and painful.

I then realised that the label came from the bias East Coast Americans held regarding Brits, as well as (and intertwined with) the cultural differences between the nations. This bias of hundreds of years was more powerful than me and my own personal style.

Breaking out of the box

Was this a case of others thinking they know, but I knew better? Perhaps, but it was really a case of ‘agreed arena/collusion’ at first, as for months I was tempted and persuaded to be as I had been painted.

I became organised and detached and enjoyed my newfound authority. It was as if I had no choice. Whatever I tried, my American colleagues knew I was like this.

This was my box, with its specific shape and sharp corners and the harder I resisted it, the sharper the corners seemed to become.

As I became conscious of the box and where it might have come from, I moved more clearly into the ‘others think’ and ‘I don’t know’ pane. I simply disagreed with them. I accepted this difference in opinion and got on with the job in hand.

I started to enjoy and relish my labels, let go of the need to be liked my way and started to have fun and a sense of freedom. My confidence grew and, magically, my colleagues started to really enjoy working with me, despite their serious earlier misgivings.

This newly conscious layer of judgment in our own position and that of others might look more complex than the elegantly simple Johari 2x2 model, but it is the case that the interaction and interplay between us as individuals and our culture with its past generational biases is indeed complex.

When you start to unpick labels and preconceptions in this way, whether you are labelled a lion or a cuddly cat, there are not many facts left as indisputable.

This is both exciting and daunting at the same time, but it means the opportunities for personal growth and expansion are perhaps beyond anything we have already conceived. Even more is possible.

Want more leadership tips and advice? Read Neuroscience at work: how to have more productive conversations.

About Elva R Ainsworth

Elva Ainsworth image

Elva Ainsworth was born into a family of people-watchers and has cultivated a real love of people pattern spotting. This combination led her to a career in HR after a psychology degree at Bristol University. In HR she enjoyed implementing the brand new psychometrics, as well as designing culture change and personal development tools.

In 1994 she focused on her love of psychometrics by joining SHL (now CEB), the leading business psychologists, where she managed the 360° feedback and management development practice in both the UK and in the USA.  Her vision of creating a highly transformational 360 tool lead to her starting Talent Innovations in 2000.  TI is now a leading provider of 360, delivering to prestigious clients in 26 languages.

Elva has published two books, “360 Degree Feedback: A Transformational Approach” and "Reboot Your Reputation: 11 Ways to Change Their Minds", available on Amazon.

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