The Gateway to New Possibilities and New Worlds
The Business Case for Reflection from Findings from Original Research
The “Reflect to Create” campaign aims to bring reflection out of the closet; and to make reflection and reflective practice the key to leading, working and practicing with clarity, courage, compassion and wisdom. The campaign has been inspired by the findings from my MA research study, which asked a sample of successful leaders what they felt they had gained from their regular habits of reflection and reflective inquiry.
The study found:
- Reflection was a powerful learning methodology which gives access to a rich field of important data and information which is normally just out of everyday consciousness. Their processes of reflective inquiry enabled the leaders to bring into awareness a rich field of critical intuitive, subliminal and unconscious information. This helped them to make sense of experiences and to create new meaning from experiences, which could then be used to imaginatively and productively move both themselves and their organizations forward.
- The leaders had found that their processes of reflection had accelerated their own growth and development as the human being who is also the leader whilst also learning how to lead their organizations better. All seven made the link between “WHO they were” and “WHO they were becoming” in their personal and work lives shaped “HOW” they choose to lead. These stories charted often difficult and courageous journeys towards more authentic identity, integrity and wholeness for both themselves and the organizations which they led. They found that their reflection had helped them to sharpen and develop new skills for thinking, sensing, creating, connecting and relating differently to deliver the day to day whilst daring to create the future.
- Their processes of reflection had all evolved pragmatically in response to facing bigger and bigger work or life challenges (but none actually defined themselves as reflective practitioners)
- Ultimately reflection was an act of creation which had delivered clear personal and business benefits.
The power and fun of reflection has long been a golden thread running though my own leadership work and professional practice. My own interest and fascination in reflection was also sparked by other research in the field. This tells us that:
- 58% of executives last only 18 months in their jobs (HBR Study 2003)
- that only 30% of CEOS’ were confident that that had the talent to needed to grow their organization in the near future (PWC 2010).
- that only 15% of leaders sampled showed a capacity to innovate to successfully transform their organizations (Torbet, Rooke and Fisher, 2000).
This started to make me wonder why this was and what might be done to better support leaders and people professionals in their work.
Schon (1984) – building on the work of others like Dewey (1931), Lewin (1951) and Piaget (1954) – had highlighted the value of reflection to help move professionals beyond technical competence and text book learning in order to navigate the murky swamps of relationship, ambiguity, and complexity in the real world of work with clarity, courage, integrity and compassion. But despite the academic theory, reflection and reflective practice still seemed to be primarily confined to technical, educational or clinical practice rather than the world of leadership. This observation fuelled my own curiosity. I wanted to explore the experiences of a small sample of leaders who had developed their own processes for reflection in response to their different work and life challenges from which new learning which might be helpful to others might emerge.
The Research Approach
This study collected data via semi structured interviews from a sample of 7 leaders at executive director or equivalent from a wide range of different organizations, with very different trainings, backgrounds, experiences and career progressions. To participate all needed to see themselves as leaders and see themselves as engaging in some sort of reflection (however they defined that for themselves).
The semi-structured interviews asked the following questions:
- What is your definition of reflection?
- What are your processes of reflection? (when, where, and how?)
- What triggers your processes of reflection?
- What helps and what hinders your processes of reflection?
- What – if any – were the benefits for you?
- What might your experiences mean for the development of future leaders?
61,000 words from recorded transcripts were analyzed using Grounded Theory Methodology (Charmaz 2006), which allows the data to reveal its own patterns and truths.
The key findings were:
- Reflection’s poor image
All seven felt that reflection was almost a dirty word and counter culture in business. That it was often seen as “something woolly” and “off- putting”; that it was “dull and static”; and that it was their “guilty secret” and a “guilty luxury” .. something “I do in private away from the office”. But they also said that their own experiences of reflection were very different to commonly held perceptions. That in their own words “that is was alive, fluid and full of movement”; “I love finding the aha moment – it is a bit like a dopamine hit”; “ I love to find the link between things”; or “I really value having the personal space to think to carry be forward into the next phase”.
- How the leaders defined reflection
What emerged from the data was the experience of reflection as an intentional process of retreat, reflect and return which was a conversation with experience – “to stop the busyness and stand back”, “finding space, and “taking time out to think”.
Reflection was defined from the data as a “different and particular form of inquiry and thinking – which had a rigor and a process – and which enabled leaders to integrate their learning from experience and to develop new understandings to apply in the world”. One leader described it as “a fluid process of sense making to make meaning ….. of making the unconscious conscious”. Another said “to learn from experience – good or bad – and to put it into practice”. Reflection was seen as a gateway into other lands; for BIGGER conversations within BIGGER landscapes of work and life, and which always impacted on the work. The depth and value of the process appeared to depend on the extent to which all of their heart, mind, body and soulful intelligences rather than just the rational logical brain were engaged with the question.
Reflection had become reflective practice when a consistent discipline of reflection had become established. All seven had evolved their own practices which worked for them; but each also observed that their practices where developing and evolving all the time over time as the benefits of practice became more and more apparent to them. All felt that reflection was no longer just a tool but had now become an intrinsic part of who they were and their way of being and relating to the world. One leader said “Reflection has become a very natural and obvious thing to do”. Another said: “my reflective processes of sense making and making sense is applied all the time now to everything that I do”.
- What are the triggers for reflection?
All seven leaders reported that reflection was triggered by a physiological response somewhere in their bodies. As one leader said, “my body’s barometer tells me”; “it starts with an irritation in my head” or “my peace is disturbed”.
18% of the triggers arose form noticing something different or surprising; 29% from facing something new or unknown; and 53% from becoming aware that something was not working. These immediate prompts were often doorways into larger and bigger questions inquiring into experience, relationship, becoming, direction and belonging.
- What are the HOWs?, WHENs? and WHEREs? of reflection
Reflection took place within a conversation predominately on their own, sometimes in a facilitated conversation with a thinking partner, coach or supervisor or much less frequently within a larger group or community. Inquiry tended to be iterative, open ended and thematic except where quicker shorter-term decisions and actions were needed.
All seven used some form of questioning frameworks for inquiry, which they had adapted from different sources and made their own. But a generic format of questions for inquiry seemed to emerge which broadly included defining the inquiry question; exploring own perceptions and different perspectives; exploring possibilities from which new meaning and choices for decision making and action emerged. Four of the seven said that they consciously used meditative practices to side step their rational brain and become more open to their own unconscious or intuitive knowing. Reflection was primarily personal and private; and primarily focused on understanding self from the inside out in relationship to all that was happening from the outside in.
All seven favored reflective journaling to process and capture their reflections. This was seen as a luxury. As two leaders shared “when I use my beautiful fountain pen and special paper”; or “I write in my beautiful blue book”.
Reflection was also predominately after the event (reflection-on-action) in order to extract and apply the learning in the future. All seven distinguished between working mindfully in the moment (reflection in action) to creating different thinking spaces for deeper reflection on issues, which typically were new or more complex. All seven differentiated between a quick reflection on a meeting such as “grabbling quiet moments in the lift”, “sitting in the car” or “on the commute home” “to take the learning – good or bad – and move on” – to deeper reflection for longer-term strategy or decision-making. All reported that often busyness meant that they or their organization had moved on before they had had an opportunity to reflect and this meant often meant that the learning had been lost.
75% of their reflection took place away from the workplace – often “on my kitchen table!” or in “my home study away from it all” – although one leader remarked how flexible and portable reflection is – “reflection can take place anywhere and does not necessarily need a lot of planning or structure”. Two reasons emerged for this pattern: firstly, the overwhelming busyness of work generally left little or no space for quiet reflection; and secondly, work issues nearly always spilled into the personal and private terrain of the light and shadows of the human being who is also the leader and who is always present. As one leader said “reflection helps me manage my life and my work within it”.
- What HELPS and what HINDERS reflection?
What helped most was when each had made an autonomous decision to invest in reflection; and to prioritize by diarizing reflective thinking space. As one leader said “I owe it to myself”; another said “reflection is fundamental and foundational to me living deliberately”. It emerged that developing habits of reflection had been a personal choice and was a very personal commitment to learn from experience in order live and work well. Other mechanisms like a supportive organizational culture, being ‘taught’ the tools for reflection, the requirements of a course or training programme to write learning logs or the support of others were seen as helpful but secondary to this very personal commitment.
All seven leaders felt that they had developed or consolidated their processes of reflection through their participation on either leadership or personal development courses which had required them to engage with more structured reflective learning processes. One said, that “I learnt the value of having personal thinking space”. Another said “I learnt a framework for thinking which was new”. But that reflection is best discovered through experimentation and being guided through a process with a thinking partner (like a coach or super-Visor) to as one leader said, “remove its threat and mystique”.
The biggest inhibiting factor was where the top leadership neither invested in reflection, did not role model reflective learning or believed in the benefits of reflection. As one leader observed: “It is very difficult if the top leadership does not model reflection in values or behavior and do not want to create learning individuals, teams or organizations” or where “reflection is used for punishment rather than learning”. Reflection can also be seen as unproductive or time wasting: one leader observed “sofas have been strategically placed around the building but nobody used them for fear of not being seen as busy enough!”. There were also concerns about safety and trust, as well the personal and business risks of possible breaches in privacy and confidentiality. Another commented, “people do not initially know how to reflect, are afraid of reflection or do not see the point of reflection which makes it a hard sell”.
- What are the Benefits and Return on Investment of Reflection
The leaders reported that reflection had served to support their journey of both personal and professional growth as a person who is also a leader whilst also learning how to be a leader beyond technical competence in uncharted waters. One said that reflection had “helped me to grow all of who I am”. Another said “it has helped me to develop as a human being who is also a leader to do more, be more and contribute more”.
Leaders used stories of their successes to help illustrate how reflection had helped them restructure their businesses. For example: how their reflection had helped one leader set a new strategic direction for their organization in response to negative press; how two had used reflection to steer a way through a merger and a change in company ownership; and how all had used reflection to develop a more powerfully authentic leadership presence; manage career moves; or to rebrand.
Six high level categories of benefits emerged for these leaders, which supported the deepening development of new capacities, capabilities and insights across a range of leadership competencies. These were to: Think Differently (25%); Create Differently (20%); Be Different (16%); Relate Differently (15%); Act Differently (15%); and Feel Differently (9%). Perhaps the most interesting to emerge was the Create Differently benefit which highlighted how reflection had enabled all seven leaders to work with the hidden potential and possibility both in themselves and in the teams and organizations which they led. The degree of benefit from each act of reflection was contextual depending on where each leader was in their own journey, their degree of engagement with the process, the depth of their exploration and the relative importance of the issue. But the benefits did appear to be cumulative and mutually reinforcing creating a new body of personal knowledge or narrative about themselves and their place in the world over time.
The study concluded that at a meta level the overarching value of reflection was that it was an ACT of CREATION: that it could be a process for bringing forth something new into the world – be it an idea, a connection, a feeling, an act, a relationship, service, a product or a solution – instead of repeating past habits or patterns. The leaders saw reflection as a key enabler to leading well; as a gateway for aligning personal fulfillment and professional development with wellbeing, resilience work success. They saw the primary focus of the work as personal and working through how they were relating to whatever was happening. All felt a need and responsibility to continually to challenge and develop themselves from the inside out exploring their gifts and their blocks (where they also had the greatest leverage for change) in order develop new insights and new capacities to lead well with clarity, courage, compassion and wisdom. All saw the link to paraphrase Murdoch (2012) between “WHO you are” and “HOW you lead”.
These six high level benefits were then each broken down into sub benefits. The high level message was the emergence of a new emphasis and proposition of reflection as helping leaders to WORK with EMERGENCE and CONNECT with OTHERS (12% and 11% respectively as a proportion of the total of all of the sub benefits). To better sense and to better relate in addition to the other benefits which are more traditionally associated with reflection such as creating self awareness or authenticity. To quote from the leaders: for WORKING with EMERGENCE “I now work in an emergent future domain which has its presence now”; and for CONNECT with OTHERS “I am better able to step into another’s shoes, see what is going on for the other person and hear at all levels”.
For a full list of sub benefits with the breakdown of relative value within each high level benefits please contact the author directly.
- What are the costs of not reflecting?
The costs attributable to not reflecting for these leaders was experienced as a loss of understanding (22%); a loss of creativity (20%); poor decision making (17%); a loss of energy (17%); and downstream a loss of productivity (6%).
Barrett C Brown (2013) noted from a recent IBM Global CEO Survey:
“the great majority of CEO”s expect that business complexity is going to increase, and that more that half doubt their ability to manage it. The sheer difficulty of keeping a corporation afloat in such turbulent economic, political, and social water is beyond most leaders experience and mental capacity”
Reflection now needs to come out of the closet as a key support to leaders (and people professionals) everywhere. Reflective inquiry – be it thinking individually or thinking together with others – has the power to help leaders and businesses
- develop fresh thinking with new nuanced capacities and capabilities to survive and thrive in today’s world;
- escape the confines of the everyday with its habitual patterns and mindsets to daringly create different futures and different outcomes.
Reflection can be reframed and used as a gateway to new possibilities with powerful business benefits and clear returns on investment for people, teams and organizations for robust strategic thinking, clear decision- making, and transformational development. To conclude with the words of one leader:
…..“the more I do reflection the more I see its value … and the more I want of it”….
Elaine Patterson is the Coaching Supervision Academy’s Director: Creative Development. She is a Master Executive Coach, an accredited supervisor and a published writer. Elaine’s vision to bring the energizing, creative and humanizing powers of reflection and reflective practices to leaders and people professionals everywhere.
If you want to find out more about the “Reflect to Create” campaign please contact Elaine via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone on +44 (0) 7990 612646.
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Dewey, J. (1938) Experience and Education. New York, Touchstone.
HBR 2013 : State of the Global Workplace 5th November 2013.
Lewin, K. (1951) Field Theory in Social Science. New York, Harper and Row.
PWC (2012) Key Trends in Human Capital Management. [Internet] Available from: http://www.pwc.com/gx/en/hr-management-services/pdf/pwc-key-trends-in-human-capital-management.pdf. [Accessed 30th July 2014]
Murdoch, E. and Arnold, J. Ed. (2012) Full Spectrum Supervision. UK, Panoma Press
Schon, D. (1983) The Reflective Practitioner How Professionals Think in Action. USA, Basic Books Ltd.
Torbet, W., Rooke, D., and Fisher, D. (2000) Personal and Organizational Transformations: Through Action Inquiry. Boston, Edge / Work Press