Creativity & Leadership

Imagine you had a tool to help you start developing a fine-grained self-awareness that will allow you and your business to eliminate conflicts, respond to challenges, and thrive personally and collectively. Believe it or not, there is such a thing. Read on to learn what it is and how to leverage it.

If you’ve got a spare moment, have a quick think about these three questions:

What do you know about your good and bad personal attributes?

What do the people you work with know about your good and bad personal attributes?

What do you know about the good and bad personal attributes of the people you work with?

Now have a think about this fourth question:

If you and all the people you worked with answered those same three questions and you collated and compared everyone’s answers, would they all align with one another?

I couldn’t begin to guess what your answers to the first three questions would be, but I know what the answer to the fourth one is: no, absolutely not.

We all have our own ideas about what your strengths and weaknesses are, but your colleagues’ and/or customers’ ideas will likely diverge from yours—sometimes slightly, but often very significantly.

The problem, you see, is that as a society we suck at emotional intelligence. The principles of it, which many great minds have theorized and tested down the years, are never really taught in schools. And so most of us make assessments of ourselves and others based on whatever haphazard set of emotional and cognitive mechanisms we’ve acquired throughout our lives.

But imagine how much easier your life as a business professional or entrepreneur would be if you grasped your qualities and weak points in a way that was perfectly attuned to how others perceive you. And imagine if the people you work with could do the same thing.

Personality clashes that blow apart or subtly undermine relationships would be much rarer. And the setbacks that your business encounters would be less frustrating, because you would understand what aspects of you and your business need to change in order to overcome them.

I’d like to tell you about a really intuitive and effective tool that uses emotional-intelligence principles to help you to start developing a fine-grained self-awareness that will allow you and your business to eliminate conflicts, respond to challenges, and thrive personally and collectively. 

This tool is called the Johari Window. “Johari” sounds like a pretty magical word, but really it’s just a portmanteau of the first names of Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham, the two psychologists who designed the tool back in the 1950s. 

Let’s review the core psychological principle that it’s based on and then take a look through the window itself.

Emotional Intelligence and Self-Awareness

The bedrock of business is emotional intelligence. Business is about relationships, and relationships work best when everyone involved in them understands themselves and one another in terms of their respective strengths, weaknesses, likes, dislikes, and needs.

Different psychologists have different ways of defining exactly what emotional intelligence comprises, but there seems to be agreement that these four aspects of it are fundamental: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management.

The Johari Window is designed to make you focus on self-awareness. In my view, our own self-awareness is the area that each of us needs to understand before we can do anything meaningful with the other aspects of emotional intelligence. After all, how can you manage yourself or your relationships in business  if you don’t have a viable and realistic grasp of yourself first?

What the Johari Window does is give you that viable and realistic grasp. It challenges the truthfulness of your assumptions about your strengths and weaknesses. It sheds light on biases and predispositions that you probably did not know you had. And it draws your attention to aspects of yourself that are currently a mystery to both yourself and the people around you, giving you an opportunity to demystify them and understand whether they are helping or hindering your attainment of your goals.

To put it another way, the Johari Window will scrutinize what you “know” about yourself, bring to light what others know about you but you do not, and establish what unknown aspects of yourself you need to discover.

Yes, I know this all sounds a bit like the “there are known unknowns” schtick quoted from Donald Rumsfeld. But trust me, if you look through the Johari Window with an open mind, you’ll get a better picture of yourself than any mirror could provide.

The Four Panes of the Johari Window

If you’ve been to business school, the shape of the Johari Window will be familiar to you. It looks very much like a two-by-two matrix, and it works in a similar way to tools like the Boston Matrix or SWOT Analysis. But since its inventors billed it as a window, I’m going to go ahead and treat it as a window. And since the word “Johari” sounds pretty magical, how about we make it a magic window?

I want you to imagine the wall of a room with a door and a four-pane window built into it. You step outside of the room for a moment through the door. Out in the street, you see a big list of personality traits splashed across an enormous billboard positioned across the road. (The list might look a little like this one, though really any list of traits that’s relevant to your professional world will do.) Some of the traits are clearly positive while others are obviously negative, though many of them are positive in some situations but negative in others.

Now go back into the room through the door, walk right up to our magical Johari Window, and look through a pane of it. Then look through another pane. You’ll notice something weird is happening: the personality traits that you can see on the billboard across the road change according to which pane of the window you look through.

What you’re actually seeing is who perceives or does not perceive those personality traits in you.

The Johari Window Communication Theory Model

Open Arena

Let’s peer first through the top-left pane of the Johari Window, which has the words “Open Arena” etched in a corner of it. You’ll probably see more traits through this pane than you will through any of the others, because the Open Arena pane lets you see traits that both you and the people you work with think that you have. If you look through this pane and see “patient,” it means that you and everyone else think that patience is a quality you have.

Blind Spots

Shift your gaze to the top-right pane now. This is the Blind Spot pane. What you will see when you look through it are the personality traits that others think you have but that you are not aware of having—or, possibly, that you sort of suspect you might have but don’t dare to acknowledge. None of the traits that you saw in the Open Arena pane is going to be visible now.

There’s a good chance that you won’t like everything that you see through this pane. But that’s okay, because you’re going to benefit from this experience. Accept the validity of the perceptions of the people who see these attributes in you, and you will be bathed in the sunny rays of heightened self-awareness.


Now look through the bottom-left pane. The traits that you can see on the billboard outside have changed again. What the attributes you see now all have in common is this: you know or think that you have them, but the people you work with are unaware or do not think that you have them. Again, what you see may not make for comfortable viewing, but it will expand your self-awareness.


When you look through the bottom-right pane of the window, what you’ll see is every other personality trait on the billboard that you did not see through any of the panes of the window. There’s a reason why you can see all these traits through this pane: neither you nor anyone you work with knows or believes that they apply to you. That’s not to say none of them could be used to describe you; it’s just that no one, yourself included, sees you in those terms.

This means that, when you look through the Unknown pane, if you see a trait that you’d like to have, it’s up for grabs. You just need to cultivate it within yourself. One day you might return to the window and see it in the Façade pane or, even better, in the Open Arena pane. But in the meantime, you at least have a greater level of self-awareness than you did before you looked through each pane of the window.

Working On What You Saw (or Did Not See)

People who have developed a healthy level of self-awareness and sought the feedback of their peers should be able to conjure up a detailed mental image of what they see through each pane of the window. Any traits they glimpse through the Blind Spot pane will shift in the blink of an eye to the Open Arena. And if they maintain positive relationships with the people they work with and are committed to bringing the best of themselves to their work, what they see through the Façade pane will mostly be negative traits that they are trying to keep in check.

Unfortunately, because the Johari Window you just looked at is the product of your imagination alone, if you aren’t the sort of person who seeks realistic feedback yet you had a very clear idea of which traits you could see through each pane, it’s possible that what you saw through the different panes was a delusion created by a lack of self-awareness. Sorry.

On the flipside, if you struggled to imagine any traits appearing through some or all of the panes, that’s a sign that you could do some productive work on your self-awareness.

Whether your imagined Johari Window was filled with traits written in a crisp typeface or was a frustrating blur, the truth is that you won’t be able to believe what your eyes see through each pane of the window until you commit to developing your self-awareness.

There’s two ways you can do that. The first is to turn this imagination exercise into a real exercise with your colleagues, creating a personal Johari Window for each of you by going through the list of personality traits together and assigning them to a different pane depending on who (if anyone) assigned a particular trait to each person taking part in the exercise.

Of course, doing that is quite time consuming, and it requires a certain level of trust among the people taking part in the exercise.

The second method may therefore be the right approach for some people. All it consists of is taking the time to put work into the relationships that structure your professional life. Look for gestures and words that hint that people are not seeing in you the traits that you want them to see. Present yourself as a person who is open to and capable of receiving honest critical feedback. Dare to ask people for their honest take on your strengths and weaknesses.

If you’re looking to use the Johari Window to assess your company’s self-awareness vis-à-vis the traits that are important to your customers, following the second method would involve asking yourself these sorts of questions:

● What are we doing to listen to our customers and to give them an opportunity to talk to us?

● What work have we done to understand the qualities that people in our target market value?

● What are we doing to make sure our message is being understood in the way we intend it to be understood?

The business professor who taught me about the Johari Window had a great analogy for why it pays to pay attention to your interactions with others. He said that not paying attention to other people’s responses or not being open to receiving unvarnished feedback is like trying to stream a video through a dial-up modem: you’re only receiving kilobytes of data for something that requires megabytes, and so the picture that you see is too pixelated and choppy to allow you to make sense of what’s going on.

Have one more look through my magical version of the Johari Window right now, then look through it again in a month, having made a conscious effort to pick up on signals from others and invite feedback from your colleagues or your customers, depending on where your priorities lie. If you can now see more things through the Open Arena pane, you’re probably moving toward a higher level of self-awareness.