Reflection: A Critical Practice for Leading Healthy Cultures

Apr 05, 2021
If people get too caught up in busy work and work tasks that are too transactional in nature, this can lead them down a path and into a space in which they simply do not have time to reflect.

A common observation within organizations of various sizes is that people generally get caught up with being busy at work. Being busy can be an attractive mode for workers because it can give the impression that they are important to the work they’re doing. However, if people get too caught up in busy work and work tasks that are too transactional in nature, this can lead them down a path and into a space in which they simply do not have time to reflect. This is a very serious problem that affects how people inform and approach their work and how they gain clarity in making decisions every day.

In this article, we’ll examine reflection as a critical work practice and outline how you can improve the practice of reflection—both for yourself and for your organization—by applying strategies for deep reflection to both learning and decision making. We’ll also consider spaces, units of analysis, and lenses for reflection, then look at the role of reflection in decision making. Finally, we’ll discuss the organizational benefits of establishing an MMW (Make Meaningful Work) Studio as a sustainable space for reflection and how this contributes to a healthy work culture.

Reflection in Practice

You can practice reflection on a regular basis…, to inform your learning and improve decision making.

People sometimes wrongly suggest that reflection requires long periods of time. But you can practice reflection on a regular basis, in micro-moments, to inform your learning and improve decision making. Avoid interpreting the practice of reflection in an abstract way or describing it through words alone. Instead, you should practice reflection in context, with people, and in connection with real work scenarios—including the inherent messiness of those scenarios. In this way, you can ground the practices, exercises, and outcomes of your real work.

People also need a space in which to practice their soft skills—outside of real-time work scenarios or actions. This provides additional moments for considering the roles they want to play in practicing reflection. Whether at work or in other spaces, practicing reflection helps you gain perspective and challenge your perceptions and assumptions regarding work scenarios and contexts—as they relate to the people, events, places, or practices within your contexts, environments, and cultures.

Practicing continuous or iterative reflection—whether on your own, with other people, or with your team—can help you expand your perspective on yourself and identify specific areas for improvement. This implies that you are open to rather than defensive regarding the outcomes of your reflection and that you’re taking responsibility for applying the improved practices and determining how to assess, track, or measure that improvement over time.

A major implication of practicing reflection is that you must also consider how reflection and other critical practices can inform your values, beliefs, and what is meaningful to you—in connection to your own personal and professional character. Reflection should give you a sense of direction and clarity about where you are in your work and whether you’re in the right workplace and culture for you.

You also need to maximize your learning opportunities. This begins with spotting these opportunities, which the use of Practice Spotting and the Make Meaningful Work Journal—with its specific lenses and attributes that help structure your reflections—both support. The Practice Spotting tool surfaces your learnings, connects your awareness of behaviors, and enables you to apply new thinking through specific actions, which accelerates your learning.

In your Make Meaningful Work Journal, you can record your practices and learnings as personal, team, and organizational reflections.

The MMW Guided Practice Journal can help you assess behavior patterns over time and continuously reflect on them to build on your learnings and improvements. It gives your team additional tools and processes for capturing your reflections and learnings and tracking your progress. Teams can use Practice Cards, Character Cards, and Lenses to personalize their key learnings and take-aways, and use Assessment Tools to track their progress and help share the team’s developmental story.

What Is Reflection?

You should always aim to broaden your perspectives first—with the help of different lenses and units of analysis that enable teams to learn together….

Reflection should be a perpetual practice and sharpens your ability to look inward at yourself, in relation to your feelings, biases, knowledge, experience, history, gaps, people, relationships, interactions, practices, and habits and get clarity on your current state and your responsibilities going forward.

A common misconception about reflection is that its focus is only on self-reflection, which is informed only by what you already know. Not at all.

Practicing reflection should encourage both self-reflection and engaging in reflection with others. You should always aim to broaden your perspectives first—with the help of different lenses and units of analysis that enable teams to learn together and stop you from narrowing down your perspectives too quickly, at the risk of becoming defensive and overly biased.

So, while self-reflection alone is not always enough, it is critical. You need to know how to record your reflections, assess how they sit with you now and going forward, determine how you and your coworkers should act on your reflections, and understand what they can communicate to you and the people around you. Reflection helps you take stock of both hard and soft skills, by using both Practice Spotting™ and the MMW Guided Practice Journal to identify the following:

  • practices that matter and their implications for leadership and facilitation capabilities
  • practices that intersect with other practices to form communities of practice
  • how to connect and contextualize your practices to your work
  • the time and space you need to reflect on the learnings from these practices
  • implications for maturing over time and sustaining your responsibility for inserting meaning into what you do
  • measuring and assessing your continuous improvement over time and your performance in the work you do

Why Is Reflection a Critical Practice?

Reflection is a critical practice because it helps us examine our own character and identify opportunities for improvement….

Reflection is a critical practice because it helps us examine our own character and identify opportunities for improvement, as follows:

  • Zoom out to look at other factors that influence decision making.
  • Open up to learning possibilities and decrease defensiveness.
  • Gain confidence in your own ability to see where you excel and where there is opportunity for improvement.
  • Pair up with people who can complement your own practice strengths, making both individuals and teams better.
  • Gain clarity on why you’re doing the work you’re doing to gain a sense of meaning and purpose.
  • Take responsibility for any problems that arise and bring the right attitude and mindset to tackle the problems together, as a team.
  • Clarify, then iterate on your goals and measures of success together.
  • Determine any gaps or contradictions that exist between people’s espoused theories and their application.
  • Help people open up and clearly express whatever biases, premises, prejudices, perceptions, perspectives, inferences, and conclusions shape their behaviors.
  • Be willing to improve on a regular, continuous basis and in an objective, independent manner.

We use lenses to help us reflect and grow our perspectives, and we’ll provide a few examples of these lenses later in this article, when we share some stories. Using lenses in reflection helps you gain greater clarity about what influences your decisions and what meaning underpins, drives, and motivates those decisions.

Strategies for Deep, Reflective Learning Experiences

Using lenses in reflection helps you gain greater clarity about what influences your decisions and what meaning underpins, drives, and motivates those decisions.

Because people get caught up with being busy, they do not always have the mental space to pause and take stock of where they are and where they’ve come from. The spaces we describe in Make Meaningful Work can be either mental or physical spaces. The moments in which you can step away from your work tasks enable deep learning experiences—both for individuals and teams—and are really important for your health.

To help people get into the right mindset for reflection, we first invite people into our Make Meaningful Work Studio and introduce the Make Meaningful Work program’s three underlying strategies, which enable deep, reflective learning experiences that contribute to building healthy communities.

We also introduce people to Habit 10’s ten foundational practices, which inform reflection as a critical practice for continuous improvement. Practices and soft skills are like muscles that you must exercise to keep strong, flexible, and nimble. Over time, these foundational practices help you form habits that encourage meaningful cultures at work.

We begin the process of improving an organization’s results by taking on the following challenges:

  • Enable active listening to build awareness.
  • Spark curiosity to solve ambiguous problems.
  • Foster quality relationships to enable contextual adaptability.
  • Promote diversity to navigate complexity.
  • Build confidence to make meaningful decisions.

Employ the three strategies that follow to build long-term partnerships in your work. Build stronger relationships and create meaningful interactions at the intersections of practices between functions, roles, disciplines, and departments. Build, nurture, and sustain healthy cultures as you collectively reflect on your organization’s values, goals, and support structures to enable respect and honesty and sustain your efforts in delivering meaningful work.

Strategy 1: Motivating Confidence Through Storytelling

Getting people to share their stories is one of the best ways to get them to open up. People generally enjoy sharing stories about themselves. They benefit from having people listen to their stories and help them make sense of what is actually happening in the story—both implicitly and explicitly. In our Practice Spotting Tree, we call what we can see above the soil explicit and what we cannot see below the soil implicit.

Sharing stories helps people identify practices, create meaningful narratives, and gain others’ confidence. The key actions and outcomes you should seek are as follows:

  • Open up and take stock of your mindset, attitudes, and perceptions. Reflect on and identify any gaps between how your see yourself and how you think other people see you. The gaps between the perceived and actual state of your interactions and relationships with other people are what we call culture.
  • Define meaningful narratives that result from the sharing of stories so you can gain a clearer idea of what would motivate and drive people toward a clear intention going forward.
  • Convert your key stories into practices and map those practices to your stories. Doing this can help you identify desired behavioral outcomes and meaningful improvements, so you’re clear on which practices to use in which relevant contexts and have a way of assessing continuous improvement that connects to your values, intentions, and motivations.

The key outcome of this strategy is to build meaningful foundations together by letting people share their own stories and practice reflecting on them. Introduce lenses such as barriers, enablers, and mindset and attitudes. (More on lenses later.)

Strategy 2: Learning Collectively by Making

Going deeper into shared stories helps individuals and teams look for intersecting practices and joint opportunities….

We use Practice Spotting to discover implicit biases, collective painpoints, and opportunities in stories, then convert them into explicit practices and learning modules that encourage diversity, inclusion, creativity, reflection, and innovation, so teams can perceive their problems and opportunities together.

Going deeper into shared stories helps individuals and teams look for intersecting practices and joint opportunities, as follows:

  • Better understand the people you work with and what they care about.
  • Pair people together to supplement practices across disciplines.
  • Clarify the roles people can play in creating meaningful work, independently of their specific function or specialization.
  • Encourage everyone to lead and facilitate learning by learning collectively.
  • Convert your learnings into tangible assets that you make together. These could take the form of artifacts that encourage reflection, including Character Cards, Learning Portfolios, Story Cards, Practice Cards, and Learning Modules.

The key outcome of this strategy is fostering meaningful, caring cultures; identifying intersecting practices; and perceiving problems and opportunities together.

Strategy 3: Sustaining Cultures Through Community

To sustain and lead cultures, we use the MMW Guided Practice Journal to connect our values and explicit practices together and make meaningful outcomes our joint responsibility. We also create spaces that encourage and enable reflection so we can embody the healthy practices that we need to help us navigate, stay on track, and remain focused on our vision.

To sustain cultures through community, do the following:

  • Remind people of the importance of taking small moments for reflection and recording your thoughts.
  • Define your MMW Studio space and the experiences that are necessary to encourage reflection. Practice the recording of knowledge and take responsibility for leading and facilitating deeper learning experiences for people to sustain improvement over a longer period of time.
  • Consider work scenarios that are important to individuals, teams, and organizations, relating but not limited to topics such as partnerships, decision making, influences, leadership, teamwork, confronting problems, communication, appreciation, and a commitment to maturing together.

The key outcome of this strategy is to ensure that people feel responsible for the environment they’re creating and their reflections are continuously or iteratively informing the health of their environment. Do not outsource meaning, health, and improvement. Take responsibility for it in the way you shape your practices, habits, and culture as a community.

Spaces, Units of Analysis, and Lenses for Reflection

Reflection and the use of lenses can help you see things from different angles.

When practicing reflection for continuous improvement, we encourage people to find and create the physical spaces and make the time to go deeper as part of Practice Spotting. Reflection can be primarily spiritual or philosophical in nature.

While people may think that reflection requires long periods of time or conducive spaces, this is not necessarily the case. Encouraging reflection as a critical practice could be the simplest task in your daily routine.

Remember, what you see on the surface might not always be what is actually happening. You must choose to go deeper and unpack some of the behaviors and possible practices that are currently hidden from view.

Reflection and the use of lenses can help you see things from different angles. These lenses can help you check in with yourself and others and zoom both out and in. They help you see how a work task fits into and connects with a larger goal, as well as your work and personal narratives.

When we use Practice Spotting on stories, we use the following meta lenses, or categories, to help us identify the many specific lenses we might need:

  • attitude + mindset—open or closed
  • perspectives + opportunities—past, present, and future
  • communication + intent— individual and team outcomes
  • impact + time—successes based on commitment

During reflection, you can also use these lenses to assess your own reasons for reacting in certain moments at work and identify the sources of your reactions, as well as their impacts on your past, current, and future behavioral patterns. You can apply these lenses to various units of analysis to help you gain perspective through your reflections—for example:

  • stories from colleagues
  • conversations
  • articles on various industry domains
  • learning events
  • discussion forums that encourage debate

The following examples of lenses, or Lens Cards, relate to reflection:

Awareness

Knowledge or perception of a situation or fact

Enablers:

  • openness
  • evidence
  • stories

Related Practices:

  • widening perspectives
  • zooming in and out

Belonging

An affinity for a place or situation

Enablers:

  • invitations
  • care and support
  • understanding

Related Practice: active listening

Connection

A relationship that links or associates a person or thing with something else

Enablers:

  • stories
  • similarities
  • hubs

Related Practice: building awareness

You need to be able to use lenses to help you look beyond your surface-level reactions to moments and, over time, better understand what those reactions mean. Being able to reflect on your reactions with other people helps you to bring alternative perspectives to challenging moments and to see possibilities for learning by looking for consistencies and inconsistencies in your behaviors and identifying the values that underpin these behaviors.

Reflection That Informs Clearer Decision Making

The more perspectives you bring through the use of lenses that inform your own and others’ perspectives, the better your practices can inform clearer decision making.

The better you get at reflecting—both on your own and with others—and the more perspectives you bring through the use of lenses that inform your own and others’ perspectives, the better your practices can inform clearer decision making. You must take ownership of the problems you face and collect evidence that informs your way forward. Record your learnings—including your wins, challenges, and failures—and encourage the process of reflection every day.

As you use lenses as part of looking at Practice Spotting stories, you can gain clarity on what is really happening. Thus, you can gain clarity on the decisions you make, which inform your journey toward wiser approaches going forward.

As part of reflection, it is critical that you understand the following key facets of the Make Meaningful Work framework:

  • quality stories, not quantity—The richer a story in its power and meaning to both the individual and the team, the better chance you have of spotting practices that are meaningful and sustaining a deeper, wider impact over time.
  • taking responsibility for injecting meaning in what you do—Do not search for meaning. Instead, gain clarity on the practices that are meaningful to you and relate to your own narrative. Explicitly seek opportunities to act on those practices within relevant contexts that impact you, your team, and your organization. These can be small things that influence you and others positively.
  • broadening your perspectives—Reflection should encourage both self-reflection and reflection with others, so always aim to broaden your perspectives first, through the use of lenses and multiple units of analysis. This stops you from narrowing down too quickly and risking becoming defensive.
  • practicing, reflecting, and exercising in contexts in which you feel comfortable—So much of learning happens in classrooms. However, they might not always be the best environments for encouraging continuous learning and improvement. Consider opportunities for injecting learning practices into moments and environments in which people feel open to learning and more relaxed about trying out new things.
  • mapping your values to the practices, habits, cultures, and behaviors you seek—Determine what values matter to people and identify how these values play out in practice. Values are ideals that guide practices and ultimately our behavior.
  • owning, leading, and taking responsibility for practices—Provide opportunities for people to own, lead, and take responsibility for specific practices; write Practice Cards; and reflect with others on trying out these practices at work. Always look for opportunities to connect different practice leads together and observe collective meaningful outcomes.

The Power at the Intersections of Practices

Often, … employees do not have enough moments for people in different functions, disciplines, and roles to come together and learn from each other.

Because organizations allocate generous amounts of time to delivering their work and, often, not enough time for reflection, employees do not have enough moments for people in different functions, disciplines, and roles to come together and learn from each other. While this is especially true in larger organizations where business functions are divided into departments, we have also observed this issue in small to medium-sized businesses.

Some people want to specialize and carve out their own niche in a recognized area of expertise or specialty. But this can result in workers’ inability to play different roles as necessary for their team or organization or to explore their work in diverse ways.

MMW Studio

The primary purpose of establishing an MMW Studio is to create sustainable spaces for reflection and deeper learning experiences. The intent of creating this space is to encourage people from different backgrounds, cultures, disciplines, and backgrounds—who speak different languages and have different communication styles and hard and soft skills—to come together and learn from each other. The experience of the MMW Studio can help you to do the following:

  • Gain a better understanding of a day in the life of people in other roles.
  • Share stories at work, looking for enablers and barriers in your work practices.
  • Explore opportunities to help and support each other.
  • Go deeper into specific topics and practices that help you to lead healthy cultures.
  • Look for opportunities to hand off work in a respectful manner.
  • Create exercises that let people engage in contextually relevant practices and use soft skills that enable them to work more meaningfully together.
  • Deepen practices and identify practice leads who can record work practices, in the form of learning modules that help you to observe, reflect, connect, contextualize, and apply these practices in real time.
  • Clarify the purpose and meaning of the work itself.
  • Clarify your organization’s values and why they matter to your team.
  • Nurture the MMW studio, practices, and spaces for continuous learning.

Leading Healthy Cultures

The holistic nature of this MMW Studio experience should always rely on reflection as the critical practice for continuous improvement in leading healthy cultures. To assess your individual, team, and organizational maturity, continually encourage the following key leadership practices:

  • Be a safe, trusted, respectful, inclusive, and approachable partner.
  • Be caring, open, transparent, honest, curious, authentic, and present.
  • Zoom out; be aware, humble, and contextually sensitive; and connect the dots.
  • Encourage, motivate, inspire, and energize; be a constructive, positive influence; and show gratitude.
  • Be adaptable, resilient, and confident.
  • Challenge assumptions and confront problems and difficulties.
  • Zoom in, prioritize, focus, align, and plan.
  • Be proactive, accountable, and responsible and take ownership.

Wrapping Up

Please consider the following five questions:

  1. How committed are you to both your own and others’ improvement and what role does reflection play in this?
  2. Do you take ownership and responsibility for your own improvement, do you outsource this to other people, or both?
  3. How do you lead and record your own practices, take action, and inject meaning into what you do?
  4. How do you connect and contextualize your practices and how does this play into your own and other people’s meaningful narratives?
  5. What spaces do you create for seeing, confronting, connecting, contextualizing, practicing, and sustaining your practices over time?

Let’s all make meaningful work to lead healthy cultures.

Invitation—You’re welcome to join us for the many MMW shows and learning events that are coming up.

Acknowledgments—A thank you to the MMW leadership team and the people we continue to invite into the MMW Studio for continuous learning and improvement in the reflective practices that lead to healthy cultures and make meaningful work. Special thanks to Jo Wong for continuing to be supportive and caring all the way.

Daniel Szuc

Dan is a co-founder and principal at Apogee and co-founder of Make Meaningful Work, as well as the co-founder of UX Hong Kong.

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