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The Importance Of 'reflection'

September 16, 2019

Academics have spent decades exploring the potential benefits of reflection. It is through reflecting about our concrete experiences that we learn and develop new ways of thinking. It is not a new idea. In fact, around 450 B.C. Confucius is reputed to have said: “Tell me, and I will forget. Show me, and I may remember. Involve me, and I will understand.”

This famous quote illuminates the importance of learning by reflecting on real time experiences. Helping employees reflect on their past experiences at work provides invaluable insights. They develop an understanding of what is important to them, what they enjoy and all the lessons they have learned.

Thinking about what has happened is part of being human. But, casual ‘thinking’ is different to ‘reflection’. Unlike thinking, reflection requires a conscious effort. It involves thinking about your experiences in a critical and reflective way to learn and develop insights. This, in turn, allows us to make meaning from the experience. By transforming those insights into practical strategies, we improve and develop.

Employees are less likely to develop their careers in the way they want to, if they don’t understand the experience they have had. They will be less able to evaluate or create new opportunities if they don’t understand how they reacted to past opportunities. Reflection is about helping employees question, in a positive way, what their experience of work has been like in the past.

It is about helping them think about why it has progressed the way it has and the strategies they have used to develop their careers. It is also about the decisions they have made and what they have learned along the way. Then they can decide how best to develop their career in the future.

Researchers have found that reflection can help employees improve their understanding of the context they work in, transform their perspectives, deepen their understanding and help them re-appreciate the job they do (Glaze, 2001). Reflection might also strengthen the relationship between employees and their managers or mentors.

It is valuable to help employees reflect both on their successes and things they felt didn’t go so well. Almost everyone has experienced a less than 100% positive work experience at one time or another in their work lives. By thinking about what went well or didn’t go so well, we can help employees identify their strengths and areas of development.

Having said that, it’s important in those situations to ensure employees don’t dwell on the negatives. Instead, focussing them on the positives teaches them what works well in specific situations. It allows them to examine how they might transfer those strategies to developing their career in the future.

Thinking about an experience is essentially a cognitive activity. But reflection is also emotional and physical, and linked with our values and social identity. Helping employees view their careers from different perspectives challenges their assumptions and behaviours. It encourages them to see things differently. It can help them come up with new ideas and options for developing their careers.

Reflection also helps employees critically evaluate their working environment. This can help them understand how they might ‘fit’ within different teams and departments.

Graham Gibbs is an academic researcher who created a model for how effective reflection occurs. Gibbs’ Reflective Cycle breaks down the process of reflection into six meaningful and manageable steps. The steps are a road map for accomplishing reflection using any form (writing, speaking, art):

Step 1: Description. What happened?

Ask the employee to share a brief description of the part of their career you are reflecting on. It might be a particular timeframe, a particular role or a significant change or event. Encourage employees use the process of telling the story to re-experience it emotionally as well as intellectually.

Step 2: Feelings. What were you thinking and feeling?

Ask the employee to describe their thoughts and feelings during this time.

Step 3: Evaluation. What was good or bad about the experience?

This step begins the critical thinking involved in meaningful reflection. Ask the employee what they see as the good or bad aspects of the experience, now that they are removed from the heat of the moment.

Step 4: Analysis. What sense can they make from the situation?

In this step, go beyond the experience and help the employee try to make sense of what happened in the context of other relevant events in their life. Use information available from other experiences to make connections. Use the analysis to generate insights. Areas to consider are their strengths and weaknesses; the things that come easily to them and the things they find challenging; the things they enjoy and don’t enjoy; what motivates and drives them; their values; other considerations that are important to them.

Step 5: Conclusion. What else could they have done?

This step builds on the analysis and prepares the employee to integrate the lessons learned from the reflection.

Step 6: Action Plan. If the situation arose again, what would you do?

Now that they’ve reflected, help them incorporate what they’ve learned. For instance, is there anything that they could do or say now to change the outcome? Are there any actions that they can take to prepare for a similar situation in the future? They may also think of other behaviours they can try out in future for a similar situation.

You can apply Gibbs’ cycle in a variety of ways. Individuals can just think through the different stages. But, there is great value in processing thoughts by putting them into language, either written or spoken. The most obvious way to help employees reflect is in one to one conversation with the manager asking employees questions.

You might also provide employees with questions to consider and respond to in advance. Writing their answers will help them prepare for a reflective discussion. You can even encourage reflection in a visual format.

A final word of warning. Reflection doesn’t need rules and shouldn’t need much time. Nonetheless, reflection is one of the easiest things to drop when the pressure is on. Try to remember it’s one of the things that is most valuable for helping employees focus on the things that really matter to them.

Are you looking to empower your employees to take ownership of their careers? The key to keeping and growing your best people is to help them develop their careers in line with the needs of the business. That relies on open, honest and effective conversations.

Antoinette Oglethorpe offers a range of programmes to help you empower employees to take ownership of their development. Learn more here.


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