Leaders who don't pause to reflect, leaning instead on endless cycles of acting and re-acting without first thinking, often run into trouble. True leaders ponder issues before acting or re-acting. This reflection, in its simplest definition, is akin to time-thinking. Knowledge is the residue of thinking. The results of knowledge-thinking are new alternatives, perspectives, and creative solutions.
Confession time: Many years ago, when I was a young, bright eyed, bushy tailed manager, I (sadly) had a reputation for jumping into issues. I was a fixer, until one day a cohort changed my outlook. He was telling me of a problem he faced and in the middle of his story I picked up his phone and began dialing numbers of who I thought were guilty parties. By golly, I was going to fix his problems. Luckily he stopped me and said, "Hey, let's talk about this a bit," and from that point on my leadership style began to change.
What is Reflection?
What exactly is this thing we call reflection? First, reflection is a way to understand that there are always numerous explanations of the facts (do we ever truly know the facts?) and that solving problems in the interests of truth requires diversity of insight. Reflection is a critical thinking act and can happen through conversing (communal reflection), writing (why I write), reading (why I am a fan of reading), and pondering.
I'm jealous of those societies where conversation is part of the culture, taking place at tea, in cafes or at the end of the day in pubs. We Americans frown on reflection because the act appears on the surface to be void of productivity. On the contrary, reflection is that special place between theory and practice, where those all important hypotheses are developed.
Acting, Re-Acting, and Reflection
One of the many jobs of leaders is to create learning environments, where workers are free to explore new ways of thinking about and doing things. That's where reflection comes in. Reflection should come before acting and definitely before reacting. Reacting is a last resort because the results are rarely productive. Reacting is void of knowledge.
In recent studies, it was shown that management students who were taught to reflect on issues scored higher on leadership aptitude tests. Leadership aptitude is seeded in emotional intelligence, or the intelligence of feelings. I've lost count of the times I've made better decisions on particularly difficult issues by letting a day or two pass. In contrast, off-the-cuff decisions are often irrational, people-less, system-ignorant choices.
Emotionally sensitive leaders ponder their responsibility to others. Because reflection is synonymous with knowledge gathering, we know that individual and collective pondering of problems is a human act, is sowed in current context (not old rules), circulates through multiple systems and communities, and grows on the edge of old knowledge.
Other recent studies show that allowing time to reflect can improve decision making, co-worker satisfaction, fairness, cohesiveness with others, focus, and an understanding of implications. So, when leaders don't make time to reflect, opposite results rear their ugly heads: shabby decision making, co-worker dissatisfaction, lack of accord, distraction, and failure to understand ramifications. What this all boils down to is reflection is the process of finding and taking the best path, of finding the common good.
Reflection is that special time where leaders mentally activate the past. Without refection, the process of acting and reacting is an endless loop of frustration, micromanagement, and negative cultures. Taking time to listen, reflect, and understand a larger context of groups and systems allows leaders to make sound decisions to either choose alternate paths or nurture existing courses.
Reflection is not a problem solving trick. In its truest form, it is a way to understand environments and systems. Refection is individual or collective (think pubs), disciplined or random. In all cases, reflection is smart business. Through reflection, leaders actively think of their co-workers' best interests. They weed through what's important and what is trivial. They become inspirational, thought provoking, fair, supportive, friendly, and collaborative. Reflection is transformational, for leaders and followers.
A colleague of mine from the UK jokes that we in the US should begin the practice of lunchtime pub visits. Some of the most valuable time in the work day is spent chatting. Collective reflection in non-threatening environments (not offices) put cohorts at ease. Just this month I stumbled across a study showing that the atmosphere in coffee houses (energized with people, music, comforting smells) can correlate to thinking more creatively. There were times in my doctoral studies I headed to a local coffee house (usually when my internet was down) to study and write. The benefit of my coffee house environment: to ponder and create.
A friend's dad (now deceased) used to say that any deal that has to happen right now isn't worth it. The reason car salespeople want immediate sale-satisfaction is because they don't want you reflecting on the purchase. You might change your mind.
"When in doubt, mumble; when in trouble, delegate; when in charge, ponder." James Boren, political satirist.