A Personal Productivity Tool for Managers
Successful managers solve problems and make good decisions for the short and longer term and their performance is usually measured on how efficiently and effectively they do this. These problem-solving and decision-making challenges must be tackled in dynamic and active environments where thinking under pressure and decisive action are paramount.
In these circumstances it can be hard and, at times, seem impossible to make well-informed decisions and find enduring resolutions to problems. Expediency often trumps sustainability and forceful argument can outweigh in-depth analysis. Even when a manager is confident in the soundness of their technical stance, they might be left with nagging doubts about its applicability to this particular situation or a unique set of circumstances.
Yet, for long-term survival, competitive success and the staff commitment needed to get there, organisations need managers to be decisive and analytical, to solve problems quickly, learn from the experience and create a foundation for tomorrow at the same time as dealing with today.
Managers who cope most effectively with these tensions understand that, in contrast with the popular view, experience is not just about how much time you have spent doing a particular thing; it is about what you have learned along the way and how you apply your learning to new situations. In high-pressure, time poor environments managers must make the most of their experience by ensuring that it is both a source of knowledge for today and a repository for learning which enhances their own and others’ productivity. It has been shown that to make the most of their everyday experience managers and professionals should understand and apply the techniques of reflective practice.
What is Reflective Practice?
To reflect is to give careful thought to previous events, actions or decisions. Our reflections might also extend into how we felt and into what we observed about what other people said and did in a particular situation. For everyday living purposes reflection might go no further than private thoughts about these topics. It can help us be clear about what we thought and felt and might provide reassuring confirmation of a position taken.
But reflection can also leave us with unresolved thoughts and feelings or nagging doubts which can seriously inhibit personal wellbeing and work performance. By thinking more deeply about our experience and doubts, including how we felt and what influenced how we felt we can become much clearer about why and how we are affected and therefore reach a much stronger position from which to take action. This leads to personal growth.
For personal and professional growth to thrive in organisations, managers and professionals need a structured approach to reflection. By critically examining our experience, including our feelings, we learn to interpret it. Meaningful interpretation leads to the new insights which are the building blocks of ‘learning from experience’ – for individuals and for the organisation as a whole. It enables informed decision-making and enduring solutions to problems.
A basic structure for using reflection in this way is depicted in Figure 1.
Figure 1: The Reflective Practice Cycle
Holding up reflections to scrutiny does not necessarily mean revealing private thoughts to others but it does involve a disciplined cycle of capturing thoughts and feelings, interpreting what they mean and taking actions based on our interpretations. This is the essence of reflective practice.
Making a Start
The best way to learn about and test the usefulness to you of reflective practice is to keep a Professional Learning Journal (PLJ) in which you note observations and experiences relating to your work interests. Make sure to capture ‘data’ not only about what happened and what you observed but include also notes about how you felt about the circumstances you describe. It is best to capture your thoughts and feelings while they are fresh in mind and before the passage of time alters your perceptions. Devoting just seven to ten minutes per day to journaling is enough for a good start.
Then, step back from what you have written, read your PLJ anew and ask yourself some questions about it. This is the interpretation stage. For example:
- What made you feel angry/sad/elated/frustrated (or whatever you have noted about your feelings)?
- What was concerning you at the time you made your journal entry?
- What assumptions did you have about the situation?
- What did you notice about your state of mind?
- Is there anything you don’t yet understand about the situation?
- Any new thoughts or ideas?
Make new journal entries to capture these interpretations.
As you progress with your journal writing, set aside some time to read back over your entries. What do you notice about the ways you react to situations? Are there patterns or habitual ways of responding in evidence? What was the result of your acting that way? How did your assumptions influence your responses?
After a little journal-writing and self-questioning practice it helps to find a supportive colleague or friend to help advance your reflective practice a stage further as you move toward taking actions based on your interpretations.
Reflective Practice in Action
After just a few days of journal writing and reflecting on what she had written a newly appointed team leader gained new insight into why she habitually allowed herself to be the problem solver for her team instead of working with them and helping less-experienced team members gain new skills. She realised that she routinely felt satisfied by each solved problem and frustrated by the demands on her time by members of her team.
She discovered that although she was drawn to the idea of ‘manager as coach’, deep down she derived a great deal of personal satisfaction from solving complex problems herself. In a ‘taking action’ step, she experimented with the idea of ‘how to help others learn’ as a team leadership problem to be solved. This helped shift her focus from solving technical problems herself to helping team members solve their own problems with her support.
With further reflection and supported by confidential conversations with a peer team leader she came to realise too that her family upbringing and being the oldest of five siblings had contributed significantly to her habitual responses. Reflective practice helped this manager test her own assumptions and break some long-standing habits. The result was that she discovered in herself a talent for developing others. Team satisfaction grew and productivity improvement ensued.
Learning and Knowledge Building
Over time, the simple cycle depicted in Figure 1 extends into progressive cycles of experiencing, reflecting, interpreting and informed action taking with each cycle informing the next as shown in Figure 2. The knowledge and learning which ensues goes way beyond technical ‘know-how’ to encompass what has been learned from individual and shared subjective experiences.
Figure 2: Accumulating learning and knowledge through Reflective Practice:
The benefits of reflective practice go beyond a retrospective look at what happened. Skilled practitioners of reflective practice know how to ‘reflect in action’ as well as ‘reflect on action’. They are able to inhabit two ‘psychological places’ at the same time; directly contributing to what is going on and concurrently reflecting on their experience.
The Value of Reflective Practice
When managers and professionals invest time and effort to learn about and apply the skills of reflective practice they:
- Extract far more ‘on the job’ learning by exploring not only what happened but why it happened;
- Enhance critical thinking skills;
- Transcend habitual behaviours and responses to develop a much deeper understanding of why they (and others) think and behave and the way they do;
- Draw on emotional intelligence in practical ways;
- Strengthen appreciation of their own and others’ interpersonal style; and
- Gain insights into why they and others think and act the way they do.
Looking for more ideas?
For readers with an interest in extending their reading about the topics covered in this article the following articles are available on the website:
About the Author
Janet Fitzell is an independent organisational consultant and facilitator specialising in organisational development and group dynamics through FourLeaf Consulting (www.fourleaf.com.au). She facilitates team planning and development undertakes organisational reviews using a collaborative action learning approach coaches individuals and teams and generally helps organisations to build sustainable futures.