“We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.”
American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer John Dewey (1933:78)
If there is one common denominator amongst all of my current coaching clients that is producing powerful personal and professional change at varying levels of leadership, it is this: Quite simply, the art of reflection or reflective practice is one of the most highly impactful yet underutilised personal learning instruments. Teamed with increased self-awareness through coaching and a coach or mentor that can both support and challenge your leadership growth and direct your reflection and awareness towards your desired coaching agenda, it can (and does!) produce powerful outcomes.
The danger of reflection undertaken in isolation without any support from a trusted mentor, supervisor or coach is that your learning may have a one-sided view, unaware of unseen “blind spots”. Also, it is worth noting that at its best it is a practice of discipline, where there is regular and scheduled opportunity to actively choose to reflect upon both regular and irregular behaviours.
One strategy I suggested recently to a client is scheduling to choose to actively reflect at the end of your working week. For example, 4.30pm on a Friday afternoon. Simply and honestly asking yourself the following questions:-
- What worked well for me this week? (did well/do again)
- What opportunities did I see to do things differently? (do differently/ plan to change)
- How can I plan my next week to incorporate these learnings, both by acknowledging the positive behaviours as well as actively incorporating alternatives to the things I would like to approach differently in the week ahead?
In my reflective practice, I have found that what tends to naturally follow these reflective questions is a review of your coming weeks’ schedule and action list for the week ahead. This can benefit in many ways – not least by firstly allowing you to plan your week ahead and view what is coming up, scheduling in the items you didn’t complete this week. Incorporating the reflective items of “did well and do again” and “do differently and plan to change” in your schedule allows the opportunity to proactively think ahead and plan to take on board your learnings and adapt.
A side benefit of this practice I have found for myself is that it allows you to “disconnect” from your week just undertaken, avoiding the Friday sleepless night noting all the “forgotten” tasks and associated anxiety of the time they will get done (they have already been accounted for in your schedule!). Further to this, in the rush and chaos of arriving at your workplace on Monday morning your action list and “ideal” week are already planned and ready to action upon, before you’ve even finished your first coffee!
This reflection on prior learning and behaviours is referred to by Di Stefano et al (2014) as articulating and codifying experience. I was fascinated to read their case study of a Western technology company that in research undertaken, comparing two groups of University qualified, professional customer service officers whereby one group completed their work practices 15 minutes early every day, undertaking regular reflective practice for 15 minutes, compared to the second group who instead extended their work day and continued with their work for the same period of time. What was most fascinating was that the group undertaking daily reflective practice actually increased in their productivity and effectiveness, more so than the group that actually worked longer!
Thus the expected excuse of “no time to reflect” actually doesn’t apply here! What if you could increase your effectiveness (and your learning) improve upon your work practices and actually reduce your working time all at the same time?
Sounds too good to be true – but my experience is it is not. Even a small amount of regular, dedicated time to choose to reflect using the above model will benefit. Combine this with a coach or mentor who is actively working towards your professional growth and career or growth agenda items and you have in place a routine of reflective practice that will undoubtably enable your continued personal and professional growth.