Reflection: the first step in transformation

HR leaders can help managers carve out reflection time by promoting and even helping to organise sessions focused on lessons learned, both for managers and teams.

Dedicating time to active and purposeful reflection can give us new insights that then plant the seeds for new ways of thinking, writes Jennie Walker 

The word “transformation” may evoke images of action – starting something new, stopping something that isn’t working, working harder to reach a goal. But it is our obsession with “doing” that often undermines meaningful transformation. Case in point: a 10-year study of managers’ use of time revealed that only 10 per cent spent it “in a committed, purposeful, and reflective manner”. Researchers Heike Bruch and Sumantra Ghoshal, said that almost half of managers were simply too distracted by the business around them to take time to think. This resulted in failure or significant delays in workplace transformation. “Because they don’t stop to reflect, distracted managers tend to have trouble developing strategies and adjusting their behaviors to new requirements” (Beware the Busy Manager, Harvard Business Review, 2002).  And it is those new requirements that pave the way to transformation, for both individual leaders and for organisations. If we want to transform ourselves and our workplaces, dedicating time to active and purposeful reflection is key. This process of discovery allows us to make meaning of our daily experiences and to learn from them. Those new insights then plant the seeds for new ways of thinking and approaching work.

The frontline role of managers
Managers are on the front lines of workplace transformation. Even if direction has come from above, managers are the agents of change, directly leading and influencing the majority of employees in an organisation. So they must make time to critically reflect with their teams the past and present state of their functional areas before they can get a firm reading on their organisational compass and move to action. If they don’t carve out this time, it may lead to a vicious cycle of trial and error. As Confucius said, “By three methods we may learn wisdom: First by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.”

How HR can help transformation
HR leaders can help managers carve out reflection time by promoting and even helping to organise sessions focused on lessons learned, both for managers and teams. Sessions may be bi-annual or annual for teams, while individual coaching sessions for managers may be helpful on a more frequent basis. At the individual level, reflection can help renew one’s management approach. At the team level, reflection is fundamental for effective strategy setting – how will the team work together to meet the organisation goals ahead of them. Over time, these sessions can help develop the habit of reflection and foster a more reflective workplace culture.

How should these sessions run? If budget allows, an external coach may be contracted to facilitate the process for each team. Otherwise, the process can be led internally by the manager or HR leader. At a minimum, it is helpful to provide managers and their teams with a suggested process and questions that they can use to keep sessions focused. Some methods that can facilitate reflection include storytelling, critical incident analysis, reflective journals, and reflective dialogue with a mentor or coach.

It’s important to set expectations and the tone for the sessions well in advance, since these conversations can be uncomfortable and may even be emotional. Participants will benefit by knowing the purpose of the session and how the information will be used. Ground rules are also helpful to put people at ease. Even if some are suggested, it is a good practice to invite the team to add ground rules that are important for their participation. These may include confidentiality, using respectful language, or making sure each person is heard in the process. The guidelines and ground rules should be designed to support team members in courageously sharing and discussing the beliefs, assumptions, norms, expectations, hopes, limitations, successes, and results of the team. They should also help maintain a productive tone throughout. By no means should the sessions be centred on identifying dysfunctions alone.   Questions should also elicit strengths that can be leveraged. Once the team has painted a picture of the past and present, they and their manager will then be ready to create strategies for transformation going forward.

7 questions for critical reflection by teams

  1. Thinking back on 2014, what were some high points for our team?
  2. What experiences or accomplishments made you feel proud of being on this team?
  3. What strengths have helped our team create these points of pride that we can continue to leverage?
  4. Thinking back on last year, what have been some of the low points for our team?
  5. What beliefs, assumptions, norms, expectations or limitations on our team led to these low points?
  6. What must we change as a team to set us up for more success and fulfilment in the future?
  7. How will we know that we are successful?