Find time to reflect

Posted by on Sep 9, 2010 in Emotion & cognition | 0 comments

Managers, as a group, tend to be action-oriented. We measure ourselves, our importance and our effectiveness in part by the level of activity around us. The louder the hum of machinery, the faster the shuffle of feet in the corridor and the larger the proportion of time we spend in meetings, the better things must be. Stuff is happening, and that’s what we’re supposed to do: make things happen.

So it’s natural that at the end of the year, our attention often focuses on planning activities for the next year. We’ve arrived at the season of strategic planning sessions, budgets and project proposals. In the coming month or so, most of our organizations will set the stage for what we want to do in the next year.

Action is great, but before diving into planning more actions, it may be time to pay attention to the other end of the managerial spectrum: reflection. That’s right; I’m suggesting that the end of the year is a great time for just a little bit of inaction. It’s the perfect way to prepare for better action in the future.

Reflection seems to get a bad rap in managerial and leadership circles. There are a few reasons for this.

Many of the most competitive and aggressive business people I know conflate reflection with self-doubt. For them, it’s an activity for wimpy, tea-drinking, “girly men” (and women), not the work of serious leaders. They are out and about telling people what to do and occasionally listening to what others have to say. For them, leadership is primarily a public-facing function.

Even those who don’t denigrate reflection seem to shy away from it. Thinking deeply can be uncomfortable. We might learn things that we’d rather not know about ourselves, our work or our organizations. It’s also an activity without a guaranteed result. What’s the deliverable? Insight seems too vague to justify the investment when there are immediate concerns waiting right outside the office door.

More broadly, as a culture, we seem more comfortable with cacophony than quiet. If you believe the personal ads on, everyone loves quiet, moonlit walks on the beach. But having lived on the beach in Los Angeles for seven years, I can assure you that at night, there’s no one out there. All you see is flickering blue apartment windows bathed in the warm glow of televisions. We’re much more engaged with the ever-expanding variety of media content and advertising designed to invade every second of our consciousness.

So, how should you focus your reflection to make the best use of the time? I’d suggest that at least a few key questions be on your agenda.

What did I learn this year? Too often, we look to what happened or didn’t happen in the past year as a guide for what we should do next year. Experience offers the potential for growth, development and maturation, but to seize it requires that we pay attention not only to considering the events of the past year, but also to interpreting their meaning.

What did my staff learn this year? Believe it or not, the people who work for you are learning too. At times, it may not feel like it, but they are. But what they learned may not be the same things you did. What did they learn from you? What did they learn about you and about working for you? What did they learn from their successes and failures?

Is what you’ve learned compatible? This is the tough one, and it requires a fair amount of perspective and candor. Will this past year’s learning bring you closer to your staffers, or will it alienate them from you?

The answers to these questions can help you guide not only the future actions of your group, but also how those actions are carried out.

So, where can busy people find the time to reflect? Drive home with the radio off. Rent a remote cabin. Take a really long bath. Sit in a coffee shop for an entire morning without a BlackBerry, a cell phone or a laptop; take only a notepad and a pencil.

If you want to really distinguish yourself as a leader, invest in a little reflection. It can set the stage for focused and meaningful action.

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