Why Self-Evaluation is Essential for Leaders

by | May 30, 2015

It’s inevitable. At some point you make a decision that doesn’t go well. The astute leader takes time to assess the decision-making process and determine what worked or didn’t. To appreciate why self-evaluation is essential, we need to understand more about the brain.

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

The X-system constantly compares your surroundings (both physical and internal) to what is “normal” for you. As long as everything matches, the wallpaper is uninterrupted. If something is out of the ordinary, the brain’s error detection unit (anterior cingulate cortex or ACC) notices the change and calls in reinforcements.

Thousands of years ago it worked. Imagine that your “wallpaper” consists of a jungle. As long as you perceive “jungle” all is well. But if “tiger” appears it is incongruous with “jungle.” The ACC recognizes the difference and asks the amygdala (a 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. That was perfect then, but today there are no tigers in the workplace…or are there?

Now imagine you manage a high-profile project. Each team member is responsible for their role. You walk into a meeting expecting a typical status report but discover that one person dropped the ball. You react immediately and it’s not pretty. What happened? First, recognize that your wallpaper includes value systems, biases, motivations and more. The ACC compares the situation with your beliefs. The situation isn’t as expected so the ACC checks with the amygdala. Is this a threat? The amygdala responds, “Absolutely! We value success and responsibility. This is neither. “FIGHT!”

Here is where self-awareness is essential. The self-aware leader either recognizes the tendency to react and has self-restraint, or they react, realize the mistake and seek to understand what happened. Either way, you need the C-system. The C-system focuses on what happened.

While this example may be exaggerated (or not), the dynamic between the X and C systems happens countless times each day.

The X-system with your values, beliefs and biases allows you to function on auto-pilot. If you stay on autopilot you never question the beliefs that motivate your choices. It’s easy but unless you call on the C-system to self-evaluate, you miss changes and opportunity.
Perhaps you face a difficult choice that nags at you. That discomfort is a discrepancy between the situation and the beliefs in the X-system. 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. Hope you notice the internal tug to self-evaluate amid the din of daily demands.
  2. Make self-evaluation part of the workflow process. Build in pauses for evaluation.
  3. Ask a trusted advisor to ensure you examine the motivation behind each decision.

Plus there’s an added benefit to self-evaluation. The X-system learns from the C-system so today’s discrepancy is not a red flag in the future.


Author Byline: Founder and CEO of Blue Fjord Leaders, Shelley Row P.E. CSP, was named by Inc. Magazine as one of the top 100 leadership speakers. Professional engineer and former senior executive, she was recognized as one of the best minds in advanced traffic management systems.

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