3 reflective leadership habits of highly effective leaders
There’s one practice that will add richness and depth to your work life, empower your team members and enhance your productivity and that of those around you. It can be developed and learned, and it’s cheap.
We’ve all heard of mindfulness and its benefits to health and wellbeing, but to me, mindfulness is most useful as a foundation for a truly productive habit that will be enormously beneficial to your career. I’m talking about embarking on the difficult but highly rewarding journey of creating the habit of reflection.
Reflection is a critical part of learning from experience, and it’s recognised in an enormous body of studies and literature as a key behaviour for those who want to develop themselves professionally and move up the leadership ranks.
Adding a dose of Zen
When mastering the art of reflection, it is important to distinguish between ruminating – stewing over a problem or experience – and reflecting – evaluating decisions, mistakes and successes in a constructive way (mindfulness forms a good basis here, as the act of being present and observing without judgment gives you more material to draw insights from when reflecting on your actions and gaining insights).
By asking questions like, “Why do you think you were feeling that way?” or “What else could you have considered?”, leaders can help their team members move towards a reflective practice, developing actionable insights for the future and allowing people to move on from mistakes. I have also seen leaders and managers benefit enormously from building their own reflective habits, and asking themselves the same questions.
As an organisational psychologist, reflective training runs right through my professional background, and I’ve built it into my approach to leadership development – for instance, in implementing mentorship programs within our client organisations.
Mentors themselves often need to be trained on asking reflective questions when coaching current or future leaders one-on-one. When the mentor feels she has walked that path before, it’s very natural to jump into advice giving. But it’s better to prompt an insight than to give it to a person directly. The insights gained through reflection are much more ‘sticky’ than simply being told how things should have been done.
The same principle applies to leadership workshops. One of the benefits of simulation exercises and experiential learning is for people to take risks in a safe environment that allows them to make mistakes; reflecting on those mistakes with the help of a coach allows them to return to the workplace with learnings gained from those experiences.
Workplace culture: the key to fostering reflective practice
Exercises like these that teach about the reflective cycle are good for building a foundation, but they must be supported in the workplace – organisations should also be aiming to foster a culture of learning. If a workplace culture is too focused on following rules and procedures and doesn’t offer room to innovate and take intelligent risks, there can be no room to support reflection, growth and improvement.
Even with the right structures in place – like group sessions for managers to discuss better ways of doing things – if the culture isn’t supportive, nobody will open up and share what they are struggling with.
The benefits to the whole
Incorporating these practices and creating a culture of reflection is part of a holistic approach to talent development. The World Health Organization estimates that stress costs American businesses $300 billion annually. Investing in building practices like mindfulness and reflection isn’t just personally beneficial to individuals by reducing stress and enabling them to deal better with pressure. It can also deliver a significant productivity dividend through its impact on personal growth and development.
It doesn’t come naturally to everyone and some people are definitely slower to warm up, in my experience. But those same people have said to me that taking action like reflective journaling was the hardest, but most beneficial thing they’ve ever done.
Taking action: What can you do to reflect?
So what habits can you practise to develop proficiency in reflective leadership? Here are some strategies you can adopt right away.
- Make time for reflective journaling.
Ten minutes a day or even just ten minutes a week to start with. Using a template (there are many available online) to write about experiences is better than just thinking about them – again, you can avoid rumination by taking a structured approach. Some find recording an audio journal suits their style much better; either way, having some record that you can return to allows growth to be measured instead of thoughts getting lost.
- Find a peer to share experiences with you on a regular basis.
It could be someone at a similar level within your organisation or even at another organisation operating in a similar role. Make time to sit down and unpack recent experiences together, explore different options and ideas and develop insights. Peers can add a perspective you hadn’t considered.
- Ask reflective questions to your team members.
Managers know that part of their role is giving feedback to team members. Try holding back a little from advice-giving and using questions that help them develop their own insights. Examples of reflective questions are: What occurred? Why did you feel that way? Why do you think it happened that way? How similar is this situation to other problems you have encountered? How could you have done things differently?