By Ray Williams
November 13, 2021
Self-reflection is a critical component of self-awareness and emotional intelligence, and research shows it can make leaders become far more effective.
What does being a good leader mean to you? Having tonnes of charisma? Being intelligent? Encouraging fairness and participation in the workplace? Whatever combination of qualities you value, it’s likely that your vision of good leadership is different from your colleague’s or your manager’s, who themselves will have a highly personal vision of who they want to be at work.
Self-reflection can come in many forms, including meditation. LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner, Oprah Winfrey, and even Jerry Seinfeld have all credited some form of meditation to their success. Weiner believes it helps him develop empathy and compassion, while Oprah feels it enriches her faith. Either way, studies show that self-reflection, be it meditation or otherwise, is a powerful method to reduce stress and enable people in leadership positions to make better decisions.
With each new generation of employees entering the workforce, self-reflection has become a necessary soft-skill in developing executive leadership. In order to continue growing as a leader, follow these three simple steps for practicing self-reflection.
Jennifer Porter, a contributor to the Harvard Business Review states, “The most useful reflection involves the conscious consideration and analysis of beliefs and actions for the purpose of learning.”
Reflection enables leaders to create meaning from their experiences. “Meaning becomes learning, which can then inform future mindsets and actions. For leaders, this ‘meaning making’ is crucial to their ongoing growth and development”, Porter writes.
The concept of self-deception, outlined in The Arbinger Institute’s Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box, describes how people blind themselves to the things that sabotage success. The authors write, “Whether at work or at home, self-deception obscures the truth about ourselves, corrupts our view of others and our circumstances, and inhibits our ability to make wise and helpful decisions.”
The perfect counter to self-deception is self-reflection—leaders examining themselves and their interactions to see what can change for the better.
Self-reflection and the subsequent self-awareness born from the practice encourage leaders to step back and consider how their leadership is affecting the organization and the teams and people they work with. Author Kevin Cashman writes in The Pause Principle, “The transition is one from expertise and control to authenticity and shared purpose. This crucial evolution requires sufficient, intentional pause to build self-awareness, foster team collaboration, and increase strategic innovation. Pause is a catalytic process that has the potential, if practiced consciously, to bring forth transformative shifts …” Self-deception never internalizes the “why” behind actions, decisions, and attitudes, resulting in leaders who fail to take responsibility for their actions. On the other hand, self-reflection not only emphasizes the “why,” but also incorporates it into everything a leader does.
Research by Giada Di Stefano, Francesca Gino, Gary Pisano, and Bradley Staats in call centers demonstrated that employees who spent 15 minutes at the end of the day reflecting about lessons learned performed 23% better after 10 days than those who did not reflect. A study of UK commuters found a similar result when those who were prompted to use their commute to think about and plan for their day were happier, more productive, and less burned out than people who didn’t.
How To Use Self-Reflection
Starting your day by thinking about what kind of leader you want to be can make you more effective at work, a new study finds.
“It’s as simple as taking a few moments in the morning while you’re drinking your coffee to reflect on who you want to be as a leader,” said Remy Jennings, at the University of Florida’s Warrington College of Business, who authored the study in the journal Personnel Psychology with UF management professor Klodiana Lanaj.
When study participants took that step, they were more likely to report helping co-workers and providing strategic vision than on days they didn’t do the morning reflection. They also felt more leaderlike on those days, perceiving more power and influence in the office.
The effects also extended to aspiring leaders.
“Leadership is really challenging, so a lot of people are hesitant to tackle leadership roles or assignments,” Lanaj said. “Reflecting a few minutes in the morning really makes a difference.”
And unlike being given extra responsibility or leading a team project, a morning reflection is under the employee’s control.
“They’re not dependent on their organization to provide formal opportunities. They don’t have to wait until they have that title that says they’re a leader to take on leadership in their work,” Jennings said.
Want to try a morning leadership boost? Here are some prompts recommended by the researchers.
- What are some of your proudest leadership moments?
- What qualities do you have that make you a good leader, or will in the future?
- Think about who you aspire to be as a leader, then imagine everything has gone as well as it possibly could in this leader role. What does that look like?
- What effect do you want to have on your employees? Do you want to motivate them? Inspire them? Identify and develop their talents? What skills or traits do you have that can help with those goals?
Whether you’re the boss or on your way up the ladder, “this is a tool to be more effective at work.” Lanaj said. “Just a few minutes can entirely change your focus for the rest of your day.”
In my book I Know Myself and Neither Do You: Why Charisma, Confidence and Pedigree Won’t Take You Where You Want to Go, I examine in depth how self-reflection can increase leaders’ self-awareness and make them better leaders.
Self-reflection can be defined as “serious thought about one’s character and actions”; “the activity of thinking about your own feelings and behavior, and the reasons that may lie behind them”; and “the examination or observation of one’s own mental and emotional processes.”
I argue the following:
“Reflective thinking is important because the world is not predictable, and new or unexpected events take place. During reflective thinking, we pause to examine the consequences of various actions and events and it helps us make decisions.
Reflective skills harness our prefrontal capacity for executive attention, prosocial behavior, empathy and self-regulation. As we reflect on our own internal states, the resonance circuitry that evolved to connect with others’ minds is primed to sense the deep nature of our own intentional world.
Management expert Margaret J. Wheatley has said ‘without reflection, we go blindly on our way, creating more unintended consequences, and failing to achieve anything useful.’
Jack Mezirow, in his book, Fostering Critical Reflection in Adulthood: A Guide to Transformative and Emancipatory Learning, describes critical reflection as ‘a type of reflection characterized by an individual’s re-examination of the presuppositions that inform their own beliefs, thoughts, and actions.’
Learning occurs both by doing, and also by thinking about what we do. Often we go through our day-to-day life without spending too much time thinking about our experiences. Reflection is a tool to keep your thoughts and actions running through the active part of your brain before it gets to the reactive part of your brain.
At its simplest, reflection is about careful thought. But the kind of reflection that is really valuable to leaders involves the conscious consideration and analysis of beliefs and actions for the purpose of learning. Reflection gives the brain an opportunity to pause amid the chaos, untangle and sort through observations and experiences, consider multiple possible interpretations, and create meaning.
Few companies give their employees reflection time. The focus instead is on productivity and ‘working harder’ to meet deadlines and beat the competition. Yet, new research demonstrates the value of reflection in helping people do a better job. Francesca Gino and Gary Pisano of Harvard Business School, Giada Di Stefano of HEC Paris, and Bradley Staats of the University of North Carolina have published a study published in Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge, that shows that ‘reflecting on what you’ve done teaches you to do it better next time.’ The researchers did a series of studies which showed that reflection boosts performance. “Now more than ever we seem to be living lives where we’re busy and overworked, and our research shows that if we’d take some time out for reflection,we might be better off,’ Gino says.
Self-reflection as a method of enhancing self-awareness can have measureable productivity benefits in organizations. The researchers demonstrated that employees who spent 15 minutes at the end of the day reflecting on their work performed 23% better after only 10 days than those who did not reflect.
Leaders should adopt a pause and reflect practice at meetings and encourage others to do the same to avoid reactive behavior. This requires a change in the habits of behavior, and examining their daily practices to allow for space, reflection and the ability to ponder.
McKinsey outlines why in the McKinsey Quarterly article, ‘Recovering from Information Overload.’ The article argues attention fragmentation hits CEOs and their colleagues in the C-Suite particularly hard because senior executives so badly need to synthesize information from many different sources, reflect on its implications for the organization, apply judgment, make trade-offs, and arrive at good decisions.
According to the former director of the Accenture Institute of Strategic Change and coauthor of the book, The Attention Economy: Understanding the New Currency of Business, Tom Davenport says, ‘Understanding and managing attention is now the single most important determinant of business success.’ We’re living in an attention economy in which the ability to manage our attention and the quality of it is the key to success.
Self-reflection is something that has been written about and practiced throughout human history. Self-reflection from a philosophical perspective refers to the understanding of your mentality, beliefs, and life desires. Accordingly, all of our thoughts and sensations come with our belief that our thoughts have an effect on our beliefs. In other words, our thoughts and beliefs are directly impacted by the emotions and sensations that come with those beliefs.
Harry Kraemer, clinical professor of strategy at the Kellogg School and former CEO of multibillion-dollar healthcare company Baxter International, is adamant that leaders, and leaders-to-be, need to carve self-reflection into their daily routine. ‘It takes only 15 minutes, and we all have 15 minutes somewhere in the day: during a commute, during exercise, during a cup of coffee. In fact, as an added benefit, reflection can lead to finding more time for what is important,’ he said in an interview with the
In a recent webinar, Manfred Kets de Vries, INSEAD Distinguished Clinical Professor of Leadership Development & Organisational Change, shared his thoughts on what the COVID crisis means for leaders. Drawing from the teachings of the early Greek philosophers, he said that the inscription on the temple of Apollo in Delphi, “Know thyself”, remains utterly relevant to this day. Indeed, a large part of his life’s work has been to help executives become more self-reflective leaders.
“Most people are strangers to themselves,” he said. A lot of them resort to the manic defence – filling their calendar with a flurry of activities meant to prevent them from having any time to reflect. They are always running, without knowing what they are running for or running to. Also, they feel drained, but they don’t know why. Others, having reached the pinnacle of professional success, fail to find meaning. All too often, excess greed has left them very lonely.
Kets de Vries promotes what he calls the clinical paradigm as a channel of self-reflection for leaders. The paradigm, in technical speak, involves a psychodynamic-systemic orientation to organisational analysis. “Much of what happens is beyond our conscious awareness,” he said. Fantasies, dreams and symbolism are ways to access this kind of self-knowledge and to reveal our blind spots. Another is reflecting on one’s past, which can form a “lens through which we can understand the present and shape the future”.
But why is it so necessary to know thyself as a leader? Essentially, the world has reached an unprecedented level of complexity and the pace of change is dizzying. While the Covid-19 crisis is particularly salient, in that it threatens lives and livelihoods, it is but the latest in an unending stream of disruptions. In such a state of affairs, it is critical for leaders to realise that they can’t be good at everything. It is time to do away with the myth of the CEO as hero.
“Leadership is a team sport,” said Kets de Vries. Leaders need to know their strengths so they can best use them. At the same time, they need to humbly recognise their weaknesses so they can build and empower a team that fills those gaps.
The humility that comes with self-awareness is also critical to fighting off the rise of autocratic leaders, the kind that lives in echo chambers of their own making. Kets de Vries reminded the audience that the sirens of hubris are always beckoning. Many leaders can become self-destructive.
Also, as Kets de Vries pointed out, with crises often comes social regression. People suddenly feel more dependent and start looking for messiahs. The most striking examples of this phenomenon can easily be seen in the political realm. But it is also commonly observed in organisations, where there is natural tendency for people to tell their higher-ups what they want to hear. And after a while, leaders “like it”, he said. Truth tellers aren’t wanted. Even in the best of times, this combination of narcissism and sycophantic behaviour has led to the downfall of giants such as Nokia.
The pandemic is an inflection point. To turn it into an opportunity and a force for good, CEOs need to provide meaning to their employees. Meaning, as Kets de Vries explained, is comprised of purpose (“a forward-looking concept”), a sense of belonging (“we are very social animals”), competence (“what are we good at”), control (“people like to have a voice”) and transcendence (“going beyond the self”).
Suggestions for How Leaders Can Incorporate Self-Reflection into Their Routines
- Pause for 5–10 minutes before every phone call, face-to-face conversation, or meeting and reflect on these questions:
- How am I feeling about the upcoming call/conversation/meeting?
- How do I want to feel about the upcoming call/conversation/meeting?
- What is my intention and desired outcome for the upcoming event?
- What am I avoiding?
- How will I How could I be more effective?
- How can I be more authentic?
- How can I be more inspirational?
- Who will I be?
2. Pause for 5–10 minutes after each event and reflect on these questions:
- How do I feel about what happened in the event
- How do I want to feel about what happened in the event?
- Did I achieve my intention/desired outcome in the event?
- What prevented me from doing so if I didn’t?
- What options do I have if there is a similar event in the future?
- What do I need to do to follow up?
- How did I show up during the event?
- Who was I being?
3. Go for a walk outside the office for 10–15 minutes to reflect. Changing your environment has a beneficial impact on thinking processes.
4. Write in a journal your thoughts and feelings before and/or after the events. Committing your thinking and feeling to paper helps you organize our intentions.
5. Once a week, set aside an hour to reflect on the week’s events and how you felt and thought about them as well as reflecting on what is coming up the next week. Friday or Sunday night are good days to do it.”
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