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Why self-assessment is a critical exercise for business leaders


As a business leader, you’re probably accustomed to conducting performance reviews with employees. This is because it’s so important for team members to receive constructive feedback from objective third parties. We simply do not see ourselves the way other people do.

But what about you – who’s reviewing your own performance?

Maybe someone is once a year as your regular performance review, but maybe no one is.

The higher up the organizational ladder that business leaders climb, there are fewer opportunities to obtain constructive feedback. In fact, it could be pretty easy to avoid feedback entirely if you didn’t want to hear it. This is because:

  • Leaders may not have a manager above them or peers who are available to provide feedback.
  • Employees are usually hesitant to be perceived as criticizing their manager and won’t say anything negative – even if invited to.

(Side note: Though, employees’ fear of being honest and open is feedback in and of itself – a warning sign that your culture may require some attention or that your leadership style has reduced trust.)

It can be easy to get stuck within a leadership bubble, somewhat isolated and cocooned from any criticism or feedback, certain that you’re only getting better because of your current position or continued upward trajectory.

So, what’s the answer? One helpful solution can be leadership self-assessments.

This activity may not always be fun and can definitely be challenging, but it’s an essential practice for leaders who strive for improvement and growth.

What is a leadership self-assessment?

A self-assessment or evaluation is a “warts and all” review of yourself that:

  • Takes an honest look at where you are right now
  • Assesses what you’re doing well and should continue doing
  • Reveals competencies in which you may struggle
  • Uncovers opportunities for improvement
  • Confirms what you should stop doing altogether
  • Evaluates progress toward professional goals

Why is this exercise so important for leaders in particular?

Benefits of a leadership self-assessment

For starters, leaders need feedback for the same reason their employees do – to understand how to perform better and be more effective in their role.

A self-assessment is critical for:

  • Enhancing self-awareness
    • Knowledge of your strengths to augment and capitalize on
    • Knowledge of your weaknesses to improve upon or eliminate
    • Insight into your tendencies, drivers, de-motivators and stressors
  • Proactively identifying and banishing undesirable behaviors and habits that can impair relationships with employees, therefore reducing turnover while increasing productivity and morale
  • Formulating a plan to reach your goals faster

In many ways, a self-assessment is like a personal SWOT analysis.

When you share your self-assessment practices with employees and explain to them how you’re trying to improve in certain areas, you can:

  • Instill and reinforce a culture of continuous learning and improvement
  • Inspire others to act similarly
  • Expose your vulnerability and humility to your team, which can have a positive impact on your culture and relationships with employees
  • Encourage honest, transparent communications

Furthermore, compared to an evaluation by an authority figure, a self-assessment can be incredibly motivating because it comes from within.

Frequency of self-assessment

Certainly, it’s recommended to make leadership self-assessment an ongoing endeavor – something you practice daily as part of an effective habit associated with strong leadership.

However, it’s also a great idea to formally schedule times to evaluate yourself in a more detailed and comprehensive manner. Human tendency is to put off exposing oneself to criticism, but having time blocked off on your work calendar can make it harder to avoid this activity.

You can perform an in-depth self-assessment quarterly or a few times per year. The main point is to set up a regular cadence. Plus, the feedback you receive from others, if any, is likely in the form of a performance review that’s conducted annually. Self-assessment gives you ample opportunity to focus on improvement throughout the year.

Also consider going off-site from your workplace – making this a “personal retreat” of sorts. This will enable you to better focus and fully dedicate the appropriate amount of time to this exercise, away from the distractions of your office or home.

What does a leadership self-assessment include?

Consider which competencies and skills are most relevant and critical to your role and type of work.

Examples of common areas of evaluation for leaders:

It’s easy to want to touch on everything; to prevent this exercise from becoming overwhelming, select your personal top five to seven competencies.

Self-assessment process

Once you’ve decided when you will complete the self-assessment and have identified the competencies on which you’ll judge yourself, you’re ready to get started.

You have a couple of options:

1. Create your own questionnaire and rate yourself

This option allows you to tailor your questionnaire perfectly to your company and leadership role. The questionnaire doesn’t have to be lengthy or complicated, but it does need to address all the core competencies you’ve identified as most important.

This can be done through a series of:

  • Questions
  • Agree/disagree statements
  • Opportunities to rank oneself on a scale

2. Use a third-party tool

If you really want to gain the most objective, bias-free picture of yourself and understand how others view you, this is a great choice. There are many different types of leadership assessment tools and general personality tests, such as Myers-Briggs or DISC, from which you can choose.

At the same time, you can supplement your leadership self-assessment by conducting a 360-degree assessment, during which you also solicit feedback from people at different levels of your organization who have a working relationship with you.

These individuals could be:

  • Colleagues or peers
  • More senior manager
  • Direct reports on your team
  • Vendors
  • Clients
  • Mentors

This fills out the snapshot of your current performance and can highlight any discrepancies in how you rate yourself compared to others for a certain skill.

What to watch out for

Take care to avoid – consciously or unconsciously – tainting the results of your leadership self-assessment. Although you know yourself better than anyone else, and that’s why a self-assessment is so valuable, the potential for error is always present.

Top mistakes that leaders make when engaging in a self-assessment are:

  • Allowing your own bias to creep in. For example, cherry picking competencies that you know you’re good at and rating yourself only for those.
  • Making excuses for yourself and not being 100% honest in your evaluation.
  • Being overly negative, which can diminish your confidence and motivation.
  • Not sharing the results of the evaluation with a select group of people to broaden your perspective and identify any blind spots.
  • Ignoring the results and continuing on with “business as usual.”

What to do after completing a leadership self-assessment?

A self-assessment is a pointless activity if you don’t leverage the information you uncover to your benefit,  take meaningful action in the near future and hold yourself accountable to making improvements.

Some options for a path forward include:

  • Share the results of your leadership self-assessment with a circle of trusted peers and ask them if they agree or disagree with your assessment – and why.
  • From your self-assessment, select the one or two competencies with the biggest gap between your current performance and your desired performance.  You can’t do everything at once, so focus on a couple at a time.
  • Procure a mentor who embodies one of these skills or competencies well and can give you advice and training. Or, you can ask a peer who has mastered the skill or competency to help you. This not only aids in your learning, but can also expand your professional network.
  • Take advantage of other training and development resources.
  • Let your employees know the skills you’re working on and ask for their honest feedback on your progress.
  • Set concrete goals for what you’d like to accomplish – with deadlines.
  • Create a means for measuring success.

Summing it all up

All employees benefit from objective, thoughtful performance reviews – and even the most senior of managers are no exception. But because they occupy a unique position in the organizational hierarchy that can disrupt the ability to obtain honest, timely feedback from others, leadership self-assessments are necessary for leaders to grow, develop, improve and achieve goals.

To learn more about the practices that align with strong leadership, download our free magazine: The Insperity guide to leadership and management.