How to practice radical self-enquiry

Bronze key standing up against a blue backround.

During a trip to London in 2019, I had the opportunity to travel across the gloriously green English countryside to deliver workshops with over 100 leaders. Some of these leaders were well established and very senior, while others were new in their leadership positions. Very quickly we established a guideline for the sessions (one that we always set at Inkling): we would leave hierarchy at the door. This is because they were a group of leaders there for the same reasons; they were seeking greater confidence, clarity and support to be more resilient leaders. They wanted to support their teams (and themselves!) through what often seemed like unrelenting change, uncertainty and challenge. Leaving hierarchy at the door set everyone free to be imperfect, open and authentic – a release we don’t get often enough!

In preparation for the workshops I sat down to review the pre-work that everyone had completed; their thoughts on why they were coming to the workshop and what they hoped to gain from the experience. The similarities kept hitting me in the face as I read the pages and pages of responses. Not that this surprised me one bit. After nearly 10 years as a psychologist I am familiar with the common experience we have as humans… the fear of failure, the shame, the frustration and the self-loathing that we often ferociously hide under our skin. Some of us have been granted the gift of becoming more aware and connected to this than others, but ultimately it is there for us all.

So, why do we hide? We hide because we are terrified that we will be found out and humiliated! Worst of all we are terrified that the voices in our head that tell us some version of ‘we are not good enough’, ‘we are not worthy’ or ‘we have nothing of value to offer’ will be proven true and it will be on show for all to see. I know for me this fear was one of the reasons I was drawn to the work that we do at Inkling; I had some healing I needed to do for myself while also wanting to support others to battle these inner demons.

Our sense of self, our identity, is often tightly wrapped up in how we perform at work and how others perceived us. We all worry about what others think of us in some way, shape or form. This is very human. In fact, we know that that only people who REALLY don’t care are sociopaths (or antisocial personalities) who make up less than 1% of the population. We are particularly hardwired to care about how we perform in a group as this was critical to our survival once upon a time. The hilarious thing is that most of the time people are not thinking about us and if they are, it is more likely to be positive. They are thinking about themselves, and commonly wondering what others are thinking about them!

While these thoughts and fears are normal, how we manage them is incredibly important. When left unattended they cause us incredible pain and suffering and hold us back from our full potential. I can think of countless leaders we have worked with who have gone on to pursue incredible things after radical self-enquiry that shone the spotlight on unhelpful thinking habits and patterns that were holding them back. They identified that it was them that needed to change, even if they had initially pointed the fingers at others or the environment. More importantly, they believed that change was possible.

Research has shown that 90% of our happiness and ability to effectively problem solve is not due to what happens to us in our external world, but rather how we process that experience. Magic happens when we create space to identify our inherent strengths, our deeply held values and belief systems and consider how these align with our aspirations and behaviours. This requires us to hold up a mirror and look at our fears and unhelpful thoughts and habits and to understand why they came to be. We need to also understand how our sense of self is deeply grounded in the culture we live and work in – both the subtle and loud messages we get about who we are and what is expected of us. We need insight to break through these.

When we do this work with leaders one of the most common insights that people share with the group is ‘It is so nice to realise that I am not alone’. This often gives rises to a wave of nods in the room. This is such a freeing experience for people; to realise that other highly capable and admirable people also worry about similar things. They also realise that while we can look and sound different, at our core we are all more similar than we realise. This shatters barriers, unconscious biases and opens the doorway for compassion to self and others. This is where true change begins.

I often describe the unique strengths we bring to the world like an intricate tapestry quilt; each with different patches and stitching that reflect both the great and challenging experiences we have had in our lives. Not one person out there has had the exact same experiences and so their tapestry quilt will look different. In some places the stitches are symmetrical and in others they are messy and incomplete. Some of the patches we are less proud of, but they all contribute to the sum total that is us. The story of our lives and the beautiful uniqueness that we bring to the world is made up of both our strengths and our failings, our faults and our foibles. When we accept and celebrate this within ourselves and in the teams we lead, we allow everyone to bring their full self to work, putting their tapestry on show; this creates belonging. In my experience, this is where true engagement, innovation and creativity occur.

How we manage our inner world creeps into the culture we create as leaders. What plays out in your inner world will show up in your team culture. It is also where you put a lot of energy, time and attention. When team members are able to openly share and admit mistakes without the fear of humiliation or reprimand magic begins to happen. The extensive work of Amy Edmondson highlights this.

I believe we must provide leaders with the space and time to undertake radical self-enquiry. The practical skills of HOW to do leadership if what everyone is rushing to learn… how do I manage poor performance, inspire my team, influence senior leaders, pull together a strategic plan? We always start with radical self-enquiry and through this everything starts to change.

To start creating a more inclusive, connected and high-performing culture it starts with you! To help you shift into radical self-enquiry; what I believe to be the most valuable and impactful leadership tool, I would like you to answer the questions below. This is a no BS exercise. I want you to go beyond the surface level responses. You will need to consider your whole life (not just working life) and think deeply about who you are, what motivates you and what triggers you.

1. What are your top two values that you wish to operate from in your life? What behaviours are aligned? What behaviours are misaligned?
2. Where do you fall into drama and with whom?
3. Where do you push hard and exhaust yourself? Why do you do this?
4. What has life taught you about success and how does this influence your behaviour now?

I hope you’ve found my article and the above exercise helpful as you start to create space to practice radical self-enquiry.

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