Taming Tigers in the Boardroom: Self-Evaluation for Better Decision-Making

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” 

The classic advice in Steven Covey’s much-referenced guidebook to navigating worklife is widely applied to every stage of our careers. As we round out another year of uncertainty and constant change, traditional Q4 board meetings will likely be a hotbed of misunderstandings. While Inc. Magazine lists these tips to prepare your board for tough decision-making, if the brain trust of your organization seeks a middle ground for good decision-making, neuroscience can help.

Here’s what you can do to manage challenging boardroom discussions and get to good decisions.

Self-Evaluation is Essential for Leaders

You’re in a board meeting. The discussion is animated. Another board member says something that causes you to react – and it’s not pretty. Before you know it, damage control is needed. It can be difficult to unwind hard feelings. Decisions made in this moment are unlikely to be optimal – so say the least. This situation has happened in almost every boardroom at one time or another. When the room is filled with committed people holding strong opinions, strong reactions can happen.  When tensions rise, the astute leader takes time to evaluate the situation and determine how to get the board meeting back on track so that the board makes wise decisions. To appreciate what’s really going on with heated reactions, we need to understand more about the brain.

Let’s divide the brain into two parts: the X-system and C-system. The X-system functions in the background. For example, as you read this you are vaguely aware of the area around you, where you sit, and objects nearby. It is effortless, like wallpaper. Conversely, these words and your thoughts as you read are in your active attention. This is the C-system which requires energy to focus.

The X-System at Work

Thousands of years ago the X-system kept you safe by matching your “wallpaper” with actual observations. Imagine that your “wallpaper” consists of a jungle. As long as your “jungle” wallpaper is as expected all is well. But if “tiger” appears it is incongruous with “jungle.” The brain’s error detection unit (anterior cingulate cortex or ACC) recognizes the difference and asks the amygdala (fight or flight response) to assign a threat level. The amygdala says “FLIGHT!” It adjusts the chemistry in your brain and the functions in your body, and you move — fast and without thinking. That was perfect then, but today there are no tigers in the workplace…or are there?

Now imagine you are back in the board meeting. The staff are providing a briefing. You expect a typical status report (your wallpaper) but discover that one person dropped the ball. You react immediately and strongly. What happened? 

The ACC compares the situation (dropped ball) with your “wallpaper” (the expectation that everything was handled) … but the situation isn’t as expected. The ACC checks with the amygdala. Is this a threat?

The amygdala responds, “Absolutely! We value success and responsibility.
This is neither. “FIGHT!”

The C-System at Work

Perhaps you face a difficult decision that nags at you.That nagging feeling is a discrepancy between the situation and the beliefs, values and expectations of the X-system. The easy choice is to not think (which uses the C-system) but rather react based on that feeling. Sometimes it works but other times, not so much. Unless you call on the energy-intensive C-system to self-evaluate you tend to default to the beliefs in the wallpaper.

How do you make self-evaluation a habit?

  1. Notice the nagging feeling, pause to examine it even amid the din of daily demands
  2. Make self-evaluation part of the workflow process by building in pauses for evaluation
  3. Ask a trusted advisor who comes from a different perspective to ensure you examine the motivation behind each decision

Self-evaluation for better decision-making is an essential skill for effective leadership. Without self-awareness your reaction can lead to poor decisions. The self-aware leader recognizes their tendency to react and develops the self-restraint to pause and self-evaluate.

What to Do with the Nagging Feeling that Gnaws in Your Gut

Perhaps you face a difficult choice and you hesitate. There’s something not sitting right. The little nagging feeling says so. Ignore that feeling at your peril; your inner wisdom is trying to get your attention. Both my personal experience and interviews with executives say one consistent thing about the nagging feeling: pay attention. There’s something in your brain that’s trying to get through. 

Ask questions; probe your discomfort; dig in to understand why the tell-tale feeling has kicked in. From a neuroscience perspective, the nagging feeling is something from your experience that’s trying to get your attention. Call it intuition or gut feel, whichever you choose, it has validity and deserves your attention. In fact, a friend who is an executive director of a trade association told me that she gages the wisdom of her decisions based on the nagging feeling. “The nagging feeling goes away when you make the right decision,” she says. It’s your internal warning system … if you pay attention to it.

Trust Colleagues who say, “You might want to think about that again.”

The emphasis here is on “trusted.” When someone I respect says, “Um … you might reconsider that before you decide,” I’ve learned to do just that. There’s only so much you can see from your vantage point. Others may have a clearer perspective and see consequences and implications that you can’t. In fact, the viewpoints of others can be so effective you should proactively cultivate them. As an important decision approaches, seek counsel from the wise people in your world particularly those with differing views. What perspective can they offer that you wouldn’t otherwise see? 

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