As a leader, it’s imperative to assess what’s working and what’s not, both for you individually in your day-to-day job as well as in the teams you manage. Believe me, I know how difficult this is! We’re undertaking some massive initiatives at work with some pressing deadlines. It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day running of a team and go on autopilot. For me, this is especially difficult when I’m feeling overwhelmed. When you feel like you’ve been thrown into the deep end and are struggling to stay afloat, it’s hard to pause and reflect on your approach. (I’m too busy swimming!) But, paradoxically, this is the most important time to take a step back and figure out whether there’s a better way to do things.
What is reflection?
West Point’s Col. Eric Kail wrote a guest post on The Washington Post’s website about reflection. “Gaining wisdom from an experience requires reflection,” he wrote. “In thinking back on the significant events of my life, experiences good and bad, it was the act of assigning meaning that has made all the difference for me. Reflection requires a type of introspection that goes beyond merely thinking, talking or complaining about our experiences.” Venting to a friend about problems at work can be therapeutic. But, unless it allows you to clear your mind and focus on what needs done, I don’t find it to be tremendously productive. Reflection is the step after congratulating yourself for successes or complaining about problems when you ask yourself, “So, what am I going to do about it?”
The significance of reflection comes from determining what action you will take. If things are going well, identify why that’s the case. What can you continue doing or even improve on further to keep them going well? If things are going badly, why? Dig a little bit. Your initial reasoning may not hit the root cause. Try the Five Whys approach. Once you’ve identified a potential root cause, what can be done differently to address that?
Celebrate your successes
Celebrating what is going well adds fuel to your gas tank. It’s especially important when you are in the midst of large projects or goals. Pausing to reflect on what is going well helps motivate you to continue on the long project journey. A simple way to reflect on successes is to jot down 3-5 things that went well daily or weekly. (It’s usually easy to come up with 1-2 things, so require a large enough list to force yourself to think bit to complete it.) Ask yourself why things went well. How will you continue to ensure they go well?
Learn lessons from your struggles
In a Harvard Business Review article entitled “Small Wins and Feeling Good,” Teresa Amabile and Steve Kramer wrote, “Because setbacks are so common in truly important problems, people become disheartened unless they can point to some meaningful advance most days, even if that advance is seemingly minor, and even if it involves nothing more than extracting insights from the day’s failures. This strategy propels long-term goal achievement.” That’s a silver lining if I’ve ever heard one! Even when we stumble, we can look for insights into our struggles. Discovering those insights is a success, which then propels us to continue on.
When you’re struggling with how to overcome problems, there are a couple of approaches I suggest.
- Have a self-reflection session. Find someplace away from distractions and jot down some notes. What has been going well? What needs changed? What do you want to do differently tomorrow, next week, and next month? If you struggle with this exercise, talk to your peers or your boss ahead of time to get feedback on what they see going well and what areas of opportunity they see for you. This can provide some focus and direction for your self-reflection.
- Find a mentor or talk to somebody that’s been through this before. It’s amazing how easy it is to not see the forest for the trees! Believe it or not, your problems are not unique. People are generally friendly, helpful, and willing to help those that are struggling with things that they themselves have struggled with. Ask your manager at work for advice or perspective. Seek a more senior leader in your company or industry. Tell them about your concern and your thoughts on how to address it, and ask them what they think.
In addition to the approaches mentioned above, I suggest doing a regular reflection sessions. Put a recurring appointment on your calendar if you must. My inclination is to not think about reflection when things are going well. When things are going badly, I will sometimes tolerate things working subpar until they become painful. By taking time regularly to consider what’s working and what’s not, it provides an opportunity to make things run more smoothly more consistently.