The Importance of Reflection

In the first plenary session at the 2014 Financial Services Forum both Chris Cuffe and Glenn McGrath spoke about the value of reflection time.

I might expect that from Chris Cuffe but when Glenn McGrath, a tough and uncompromising character, recommends reflection then it might be worthwhile exploring the concept…

Reflection means different things to different people but generally I am referring to periods of thinking time where the focus of our thinking is our self.

“Follow effective action with quiet reflection. From the quiet reflection will come even more effective action” – Peter Drucker

Already we can see a problem. Spare time is scarce and thinking time is a rare luxury for many people. A generation ago there was plenty of thinking time – travelling on public transport; waiting for people; enjoying a quiet lunch or coffee break. Now those opportunities for reflection are likely to be crowded out by mobile phones, emails and texts, noise or music (or both). So why is reflection time important?


Link to Leadership

A critical success factor for all great leaders is keen self awareness, whether it be thought leadership, people leadership or strategic leadership. If people are going to be successful leaders they need to be at least conscious of, and preferably understand, their own:

  • strengths and weaknesses;
  • preferences and values;
  • personality type;
  • communication style;
  • prejudices and biases; and
  • goals and objectives.

Whilst feedback from other people is valuable in obtaining this insight, it is far more convenient to learn from oneself. Furthermore, feedback from other people is only likely to be useful if there is sufficient thinking time to ponder on the feedback and determine its application. The ability to objectively assess one’s own performance and behaviour is a great quality. This is even more relevant when the assessment is being made in an environment of criticism and defensiveness. It is not easy to put one’s ego aside in the self-assessment. It is, however, an ability that can be learnt and improved if one is willing to commit the time and emotional investment.

Coupling our self-assessment with feedback from other people, in periods of personal reflection, can provide powerful insight into how we relate to other people. It may also shed light on how we are perceived by others and that may then be weighed against how we perceive ourselves.

All of this learning can feed into our capacity to develop quality relationships, in business and outside business.

The link between learning and leadership, and how to develop reflection time as a valuable habit for students, is explored further in the paper Developing Future Leaders: The Role of Reflection in the Classroom by Cynthia Roberts.

Commitment to Reflection Time

If, like many people, you don’t devote enough time to reflection, how can you set more time aside for this purpose? We should recognise that everyone is different and, in this context, the spectrum of E-types (extroverts) to I-types (introverts) is significant. Classic I-types may thrive on quiet time and it is simply a question of applying the discipline to thinking about one’s self that is necessary to generate more personal reflection time.

It might be more difficult for classic E-types to undertake traditional quiet thinking time. Rather than battle the innate preference for ‘thinking out loud’, why not leverage it? Many E-types successfully use someone else (perhaps a mentor, a friend or their partner) to stimulate their self- reflection. Again, the challenge is to ensure that there is discipline to ensure that the subject matter is one’s self.

In any event, without necessarily formally scheduling it, there needs to be a consistent time of day or a regular trigger to ensure that the reflection time is not overlooked – again. Whether this allocated time is spent on your own or with someone else, please honour your commitment to yourself.

Retrospective v Prospective Reflection

Most of the discussion so far has implied that the reflection time is devoted to thinking about experiences that have happened. Certainly the sense of learning and the search for feedback is tied to actual events.

A short, relevant video can be viewed at the below web address on YouTube on the value of combining actions with reflection.

Even if it is only a few minutes, there is great value in considering what has worked and what has not worked in a recent activity. Perhaps you can use the walking time after a meeting or a conversation to quickly but effectively think about these questions:

  • Did I achieve the outcome I was seeking?
  • What did I do well?
  • What might I do differently next time?

For some people, the preoccupation with the latter question is not always healthy. Some balance is important lest the reflection time become a personal mental beating. If you know that your perfectionist streak leads you to be too self-critical in your self-assessment you might like to try a little trick with pronouns that Michael Grinder advocates. He recommends a change of reference point in the latter question. By all means, in your mental Q&A, ask “what did I do well?” But then ask, “what might (insert your name) do differently next time?” The subtle shift to the third person, even though we know you are still thinking about you, often softens the impact (but not the value) of the self-criticism. For example, “I was happy with how well I listened at the beginning of the conversation but Martin shouldn’t get too carried away with his stories next time. He’s a bit like that some days…”

But not all reflection time should be retrospective. Whilst required less frequently it is important to set some time aside to consider where you are going, not just where you have been. Again this might be sitting by yourself or speaking to someone else, depending on your preferred style, but the subject matter is the future: your goals, your aspirations, what you want to be, to do or to have. Some people like the idea of devoting some time to these questions at New Year, others on their birthday and others at times of symbolic significance.

It is the prospective aspect of reflection that is really critical for effective leaders. All great leaders have had a sense of purpose and I doubt that their individual sense of purpose ‘just kind of happened’. This is particularly true of thought leaders. Whether their sense of purpose was communicated loudly (e.g. Martin Luther King’s oration) or more quietly (e.g. Steve Jobs’ mission at Apple), I am sure they all spent time thinking about what they wanted to achieve.

The most effective leaders also reflect on why they want to achieve their individual goals and what that says about their values and beliefs. The clarity of their pathway – and the concrete foundation for that pathway – is usually compelling, if not inspirational, for their followers.

These are not easy topics and that may be another reason why quality reflection time is rare. Not everyone is comfortable in contemplating what they want to achieve on this planet. The answer may be very disturbing – either because they are not happy with the extent of their impact or because they realise how far they are from achieving it. But I’m not sure that they are good reasons to avoid asking yourself the hard questions, at least occasionally.


Why Bother?

I accept that the 21st century is not the best time to be promoting reflection time, given all of the demands on our time and all of the demands on our attention. However, I hope that you agree that the following benefits may warrant some attention to the subject:

  • Greater self-awareness that allows you to understand yourself. This empowers you to effectively leverage your strengths, your style and your values;
  • Valuable insight into how you impact on other people and how they both perceive and respond to you. This enables you to build and nurture quality relationships;
  • A sense of purpose in your life. This provides the motivation and personal velocity that drives leaders to make a difference.

Think about how much reflection time you currently have and, probably, how that might be increased in either quantity or quality. Think about your preferences and whether you need to set aside more quiet time or whether you need someone else to facilitate your self-reflection. Finally, think about the balance between your prospective thinking and your retrospective thinking. When are you going to personally ponder your future? I can assure you that no-one else will take the time to do it for you…

The Leadership and Career Development Committee reports directly to Council. It aims to promote the non-technical skills that will enhance members’ leadership capability and contribution to business, the actuarial profession and the broader community.

“By three methods we may learnd wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; Third, by experience, which is the bitterest.” – Confucius


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