How can leader self-awareness be enhanced?

Dr. Dutch Franz

Fellow since Oct 2016

Effects of mindful-insight meditation on self-awareness in organizational leaders: A quasi-experimental study.


Emotional intelligence has been linked to positive leadership outcomes.  The construct of self-awareness is a foundational competency in emotional intelligence theory.  There is a gap in current research literature exploring ways to develop self-awareness in organizational leaders.   This research used a quantitative methodology to explore the effect of a mindfulness-based training program on self-awareness in a sample of organizational leaders.  The research was grounded in emotional intelligence theory.  The quasi-experimental design used a two-group pre- and posttest nonequivalent-group approach and convenience sampling to measure the difference in mean scores of self-awareness with the emotional social competence inventory.  The training intervention was an eight-week mindfulness-based approach designed and trained by Stanford University.  The training methodology was conceptualized in the study as mindful insight meditation, a process adapted from traditional methods of Tibetan Buddhist practices.  The results answered the research question by showing that the training intervention significantly increased self-awareness in the experimental group producing a large effect size.  Implications of the research for psychological theory and application are discussed.  Limitations of the research are identified and recommendations for future research are made.

Doesn’t your organization deserve the most emotionally intelligent and ethical leaders possible? Learn more from Dr. Dutch Franz on this important video.

Research problem and question

Within emotional intelligence (EI) theory, a leader’s self-awareness competency has been shown to predict workplace performance (Dane & Brummel, 2013; Goldman Schuyler, 2010; Hulsheger, Alberts, Feinholdt, & Lang, 2013).  The research literature showed a current problem in the specialization of industrial and organizational (I/O) psychology regarding how to increase a leader’s self-awareness and improve performance (Purser & Milillo, 2015).  One method that has been argued to improve aspects of awareness and EI is mindfulness practice (Goldman Schuyler, 2010; Hafenbrack, Kinias, & Barsade, 2014; Hulsheger et al., 2013; Lomas, Edginton, Cartwright, & Ridge, 2014).  The research problem that emerged from the review of relevant literature is that previous research has shown that self-awareness is a component of EI and that self-awareness can be improved; what the research has not empirically explored is how self-awareness is impacted by IM practice.  There is a gap in current EI and mindfulness research within the specialization of I/O psychology studying the effect of specific types of Tibetan mindfulness meditation on self-awareness in a population of organizational leaders.  This research utilized one research question with two subquestions to explore the research problem and close the gap found in the research literature.  The research question that immerged from the research problem was:  Is insight meditation (IM) training effective in improving self-awareness in a population of organizational leaders?  The first subquestion explored whether there was a difference in mean scores of self-awareness in the IM group based on pretreatment (T1) to end of treatment (T2) measures.  The second subquestion measured if there was a difference in mean scores of self-awareness at the end of treatment (T2) between those in the IM group and those in the control group. 

Research method and design

The study used a quantitative methodology with a quasi-experimental research design.  The quantitative research method was selected because the gap in the literature indicated a lack of empirical study in the psychological outcomes of mindfulness-based practices. The quasi-experimental approach used in this study was a two-group pre- and posttest nonequivalent-group design using convenience sampling (Reichardt, 2009).  This quasi-experimental design allowed for a robust recruiting effort while incorporating reasonable controls to reduce confounding variables (Reichardt, 2009).  The utilization of two-groups and pre- and posttest measurements allowed for the ability to manipulate the independent variable and understand the effect of the intervention on the dependent variable.  The research problem delineated a need to discover if a causal relationship existed between insight mediation practice and increased self-awareness.  The study used statistical analysis of mean scores generated from a numeric inventory of self-awareness to address the research problem.

Research procedures

The study used a non-probability convenience sampling methodology.  The accessible population from which the experimental group was drawn was comprised of a population of organizational leaders that had registered to participate in an eight-week IM program.  The study had two inclusion criteria and one exclusion criterion.  The first inclusion criterion was that the participant was an organizational leader.  For the purposes of this study, organizational leadership was defined as (a) supervising two or more individuals, or (b) serve as a member of a board of directors, or (c) serve on a leadership team.  The second criterion was that the participant was between the ages of 25-65.  The exclusion criterion was that the participant could not have an active meditation practice outside of the IM course.  An active meditation program was defined as meditating three or more times a week during the four-month period prior to the start of the IM course.

The IM program that served as the independent variable of this study was Stanford University’s Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT).  Study participants were recruited from CCT classes taught in the sample frame. All CCT participants that met the inclusion criteria were included in the study.  The first step for selecting participants for the experimental group was to contact CCT instructors and solicit their participation in the study.  Compassion Cultivation Training instructors are trained at Stanford University and go through a multi-year certification program implemented by the university.  Once the CCT instructor completes certification, the instructor can teach CCT courses independently or at Stanford University under the Center of Compassion Cultivation and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE).  A CCARE certified CCT instructor database is maintained by Stanford University, this database was used to contact potential instructors and solicit participation in the study.  Interested instructors were asked to provide an e-mail notice to individuals that had signed up for the CCT class informing them that there was the opportunity to volunteer for a research study.  Next, the instructor was asked to hand out a flyer with study information and the researcher’s contact information to all CCT participants on the first day of class.  Lastly, interested CCT participants contacted the researcher and were screened for the inclusion/exclusion criteria.  Once the participant had been screened into the study, the participant was given a link to the informed consent release and the survey website to take the pretest survey.

The sample frame for the control group included leadership from organizations and online meet-up groups in the same geographical areas as the sample frame for the experimental group.  The first step in control group participant selection was to contact the organizations that had originally declined to participate in the study as part of the experimental group and ask if the organizations would participate as part of the control group.  Next, the site administrators of organizational leadership meet-up groups hosted by were contacted. is a social media site that allows individuals to create virtual environments around shared interests.  The key word leadership was used to identify potential study sites.  After potential sites were identified, recruitment of participants was solicited in the meet-up groups in the same geographical areas as the CCT courses in the experimental group.  Solicitation was conducted by giving the site administrator an IRB approved study notice to post on the site.  Individuals that wanted to volunteer for the study contacted the researcher by e-mail.  The potential participants were screened using the inclusion/exclusion criteria.  Those that met the study parameters were sent a link to the informed consent release and the survey website to take the pretest.

The dependent variable, self-awareness, was measured using the emotional social competence inventory (Goleman & Boyatzis, 2011).  The emotional social competence inventory (ESCI) is grounded in EI theory and based on the Boyatzis and Goleman competency model of EI (Boyatzis, Gaskin, & Wei, 2015; Hay Group, 2011).  The ESCI uses a 68-item self-report inventory measured on a 5-point Likert scale to provide data for assessing the 12 competencies identified in the competency-based EI model (Boyatzis et al., 2015; Hay Group, 2011). A 10-question demographic questionnaire was included as part of the ESCI.  Both the demographic questionnaire and the inventory were administered online by the Hay Group.  The Hay Group is the copyright owner of the assessment and granted free use of the inventory for research purposes.  Data was analyzed using IBM SPSS Statistics Premium v24.0 statistical software.  Mean self-awareness scores were compared within and between groups using related and independent samples t tests.


Analysis of the demographic descriptive statistics identified that the experimental and control groups were similar in age and leadership experience, but were significantly different in gender composition.  The experimental group was comprised of 75.8% women, while the control group was comprised of 50% women.  Descriptive statistics of the variable of interest, found that at T1 the experimental group (M = 3.842) and the control group (M = 3.879) had similar mean scores on the dependent variable of self-awareness.

An independent sample t test and related samples t test were used to hypothesis test the main research question and subquestions.  To answer the main research question, a related sample t test and independent samples t test were used to reject the null hypothesis in favor of the alternate hypothesis.  Mindful insight meditation was found to increase the self-awareness of organizational leaders.  The first research subquestion used a related samples t test to reject the null hypothesis in favor of the alternate hypothesis. The first research subquestion found an increase in mean self-awareness from T1 to T2 for the experimental group that was significant (p = .001) and had a large effect size (η2 = .332).  The second subquestion used an independent sample t test to reject the null hypothesis in favor of the alternate hypothesis.  The analysis of the second research subquestion found a significant (p = .035) difference in mean self-awareness between the experimental group and control group at T2 with a medium effect size (η2 = .066).  Lastly, a related samples t test was used to assess the effect, if any, of maturation on the observed measures.  The analysis found that there was not a significant (p = .966) change in control group mean scores from T1 to T2 indicating that maturation did not influence the results.


The research question sought to understand how a mindfulness-based training program impacted self-awareness in a sample of organizational leaders.  The significant increase in mean self-awareness observed from T1 to T2 within the experimental group provided evidence that supported the alternate hypothesis that the mindfulness-based training would impact self-awareness.  The difference in mean scores from T1 to T2 (M1M2) for the experimental group was .343, this difference represented an approximate increase of a third of a point on the 5-point Likert scale used to measure the construct of self-awareness.  The statistical effect size (η2 = .332) of this difference was considered large.  The alternate hypothesis was also supported by the outcome of the between groups analysis.  The between groups analysis found a significant difference between groups at T2 with a medium effect size (η2 = .066).

The results of this research were supported by the foundational theoretical framework of EI developed by Salovey and Mayer (1990), Goleman (1995), and Goleman and Boyatzis (2011).  Emotional intelligence theory argues that self-awareness is a key competency in EI.  The theory also maintains that competencies of EI are not static, but can be trained and developed over time (Boyatzis et al., 2015; Mayer, Caruso, & Salovey, 1999).  The research described here confirmed the theoretical work of Salovey, Mayer, Goleman, and Boyatzis by showing that the EI competency of self-awareness could be specifically trained and improved.

The outcomes observed in this study were not unexpected.  The training modality of the IM program studied stressed the observance and contemplation of thoughts and feelings that arise during meditation.  It is reasonable that this process could result in increased self-awareness as participants experienced more practice noticing internal and external stimuli and contemplated how these stimuli impacted them emotionally.  Mosig (2007) argued that a key aspect of self-awareness is the recognition of the transient nature of the ego and the Buddhist concept of non-attachment to distorted mental narratives that attempt to shield the ego.  Carlson (2013) argued that lack of self-awareness led to blind spots in accurate perception that could lead to negative outcomes. Carlson (2013) asserted that types of mindfulness practice may increase self-knowledge by improving the amount and fidelity of information that practitioners have about themselves and by reducing the ego-saving behavior that impacts how practitioners seek and process information. Vago (2014) argued that processing biases likely prevented accurate self-awareness and perception of events.  Vago (2014) reasoned that types of mindfulness practice may reduce habitual biases and increase accurate cognition of the self and environment. From a cognitive perspective, Vago (2014) asserted that mindfulness-based training could impact self-awareness by isolating specific experience in the moment and allowing one to recognize habitual cognitive schemas.  Recognizing distorted self-talk and views of the world that create bias can allow the practitioner to develop new and adaptive perspectives that could improve self-awareness (Vago, 2014).  Research in neurobiology provides support for the views of Carlson (2013) and Vago (2014) that mindfulness-based training impacted cognitive centers of the brain linked to aspects of the self.  Zeidan (2015) asserted that brain plasticity occurs during mindfulness-based training.  Brain scans of eight-week mindfulness-based training practitioners showed an increase in gray matter in areas associated with self-referential systems (Zeidan, 2015). Posner, Tang, and Lynch (2014) supported a plasticity argument citing brain scan imaging that indicated increased myelination and connectivity in the neural network associated with attention after 2-4 weeks of meditation training.

The training protocols of the mindfulness-based program studied in this research specifically directed participants to observe the transient nature of thoughts and the associated emotions in an aware and nonjudgmental manner (Jinpa et al., 2013).  The practice described by Jinpa et al. (2013) is similar to the construct of self-awareness defined by the Hay Group (2011).  The EI construct of self-awareness operationalized in the ESCI was defined as “the ability to understand our own emotions and their effects on our performance” (Hay Group, 2011, p. 5).  It is possible that the continued practice of observing thoughts and feelings in a reflective manner, as directed in the IM training, resulted in an increase in accurate self-information and enhanced the ability of the participants to recognize and understand the manifestations of emotions from thoughts and how these emotions had habitually impacted behavior (performance).  It is possible that plasticity in the attentional network helped make this moment-to-moment awareness enduring and resulted in changes in survey responses from T1 to T2.  This hypothesis is supported by the theoretical work of Carlson (2013) and others (Posner et al., 2014; Vago 2014; Zeidan, 2015) and the qualitative research by Higgs and Rowland (2010).  Higgs and Rowland (2010) found that a leader’s self-awareness competency was significant to the leader’s ability to recognize how aspects of ego protection impacted decision making.

A limitation in the interpretation of these findings is the unit of measurement used to observe the phenomenon of interest.  The analysis revealed a .343 point increase in self-awareness in the experimental group.  However, it is difficult to determine what a third of a point increase in self-awareness means for an organizational leader.  This question rests on two perspectives: the leader’s perception of self and the observed behaviors of the leader.  It is possible to argue that by altering self-awareness responses to the questionnaire from T1 to T2, leaders perceived their world differently, indicating that a .343 change can be significant at the individual level.  Had this research included a 360-degree evaluation that included coworkers and close others, it might have been possible to assess the value of the increase in self-awareness in observable leader behavior.  The inability of the study to relate the outcome measure to observable behavior is a limitation.  In consideration of the empirical results of the research and internal limitations, the research question is answered with caution.  The IM program studied did increase self-awareness in organizational leaders, but it is impossible to know how this increase translated to improved leader performance.

Practical implications

A leader is responsible for providing vision and motivating others to accomplish organizational goals.  Emotional intelligence has been found to be a predictor of employee engagement, decision making, and leader performance (Goleman, Boyatzis, & McKee, 2001; Pittenger, 2015; Yip & Côté, 2013). The EI competency of self-awareness serves as a lens through which leaders interpret their environment (Higgs and Rowland, 2010).  Boyatzis et al. (2013) maintained that self-awareness helped leaders connect with and motivate employees.  Yip and Côté (2013) asserted that the inability to accurately interpret emotions resulted in poorer decision making in organizational leaders.  A problem identified in the literature review, was that there has been little research into practical ways to improve leader self-awareness.  The research presented here suggests a low-impact method to develop self-awareness in organizational leaders.  It is reasonable to conclude from the results that this method will help clear a leader’s perceptional lens.  A more accurate perception of internal and external cues can lead to a better understanding of how to motivate employees, a greater strategic understanding of the organizational environment, and improved decision making.  It is possible that increased self-awareness can help a leader identify aspects of the internal and external environment that bias perception.  Noticing this bias and being aware of habitual thinking patterns gives the leader the option to behave differently and make better decisions based on a more accurate view of the operational environment.  The work of Boyatzis et al. (2013) and Yip and Côté (2013) suggested that there could be both a tactical and strategic performance benefit attributed to increasing self-awareness.

The training program researched here requires minimal resources and training to conduct.  The empirical results indicate that the training method creates measurable results in a relative brief period, and has a low physical impact on the participant.  The demographic findings indicate that the results should be transferrable to the larger target population.  This research is valuable to HRM professionals and those concerned with leadership development.  The findings provide an empirically tested developmental method to add to the practitioner’s tool kit.


Literature Review