Some people just seem to have a natural talent for annoying others.” – Unknown

After a lengthy morning meeting, I returned to my office and settled in for a short break and a cup of coffee. I had just over an hour before my next meeting, which promised to consume most of the afternoon. I gave the mouse a quick flick and the twin monitors came to life, displaying my email on one screen and my calendar on the other. Seeing a message from my boss, I clicked “reply” and started to frame a response to her note.

“Oh, there you are…” The voice sent a shiver through my spine. I knew I should have closed my door.

He lumbered into my office and pulled up a chair without asking, then immediately launched into a random diatribe about himself. How much money he made. How much money he spent.  How important he was. How many important people he knew. How many important people knew him. That hour of free time dissolved before my eyes. Had I not interrupted him to leave for my afternoon meeting, he’d probably still be talking a week later.


My visitor that day is renowned for his lack of self-awareness. It’s more than just a bloated sense of self-importance, he’s completely oblivious about how he comes off to others in the workplace. As important as self-awareness is to success in the life, it’s a far rarer trait than you might think. In a 2018 Harvard Business Review article, organizational psychologist and bestselling author Tasha Eurich noted with some sense of irony that “although 95% of people think they’re self-aware, only 10 to 15% actually are.” So, as annoying as he might be, he’s far from alone.

Eurich continues: “At the office, we don’t have to look far to find unaware colleagues — people who, despite past successes, solid qualifications, or irrefutable intelligence, display a complete lack of insight into how they are coming across.” During her research, Eurich surveyed nearly 500 working adults across a number of industries, 99% of whom reported working with at least one such individual, while almost half of those surveyed reported working with at least four. They’re like a black mold in the workplace, stifling progress while driving up turnover rates.

They refuse to acknowledge critical feedback. They possess an inflated opinion of themselves, their contributions, and their performance. They demand the focus of attention at all times. They’re unable to read a room or to relate to the perspectives of others. They’re happy to take credit for any successes but are quick to dodge responsibility for their own failures. And, quite frankly, they suck the joy out of the workplace.


Whenever I encounter my problematic colleague, I’m left pondering questions. Is he really that unaware? Is it just a difference in personalities? Am I too easily annoyed? Is it me? No. It really is him.

What does a lack of self-awareness look like? Take a glance around you. Soak in your surroundings. You know the type, even if you haven’t labeled it. They signal their self-focus like an ice cream truck on a hot summer day.

1. It’s all about them.

Their narcissism bleeds through in every conversation. They incessantly talk about themselves – you’re simply a pair of convenient ears with no ready escape route. Nothing you have to say matters, and they’re not going to stop talking unless you fake a medical emergency, and that only works some of the time.

2. They are so awesome.

It’s not even humble-bragging, just over-the-top arrogant boastfulness. They drive a better car, they make more money, they have a nicer house. It never ends.

3. Why so serious?

People who lack self-awareness tend to take themselves far too seriously. And don’t buy that self-deprecating sense of humor. It’s just a ruse to get you to tell them how special they are.

4. They’re never curious.

Self-aware people ask questions because they genuinely want to know about other people. The opposite holds true on the other side of the coin. They really don’t care about you or anyone else, so they don’t want to know about you or your life.

5. The phone maneuver.

There was a time when someone would look at their watch to remind you that you’re boring them. Today, the phone immediately comes out. That’s just another signal that what you’re saying doesn’t matter. They’ll play with their phone until you take a breath, then they’ll hijack the conversation again.

6. Name-dropping.

If there was ever any doubt how important they are, they’ll drop a name or two to remind you.

7. Trash talking.

It’s more than gossip, it’s tearing down others in the belief that it makes themselves look better. When they’re done bragging about themselves, they simply shift gears and start trash talking any perceived competition.

8. Only their ideas matter.

They never had an idea they didn’t like. And they couldn’t care less if you have an idea, because it can’t be any good or they would have thought of it first.

9. Oversharing.

If there was any question that it’s all about them, they’ll remind you with a heavy dose of TMI, juicy stuff that is cooked up to hold your rapt attention. And the closer you get to breaking contact, the wilder the sharing gets.

10. The bad influencer.

If you really want to know if someone lacks self-awareness, check their social media. That’s where true personalities come out to play. In the land of narcissistic personality disorder, the man with the smoking keyboard is king. Or that’s what they like to think.

On any other day, I might be reluctant to reflect on a colleague’s behavior in this public a manner, but – perhaps unironically – I know he won’t ever read this. He didn’t write it, so it can’t be worth reading. There are advantages to working with someone with a lack of self-awareness, after all.


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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a senior fellow at the Modern War Institute; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options, and the podcast, The Smell of Victory; co-founder and former board member of the Military Writers Guild; and a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal. He is the author of five books, numerous professional articles, countless blog posts, and is a prolific military cartoonist.