Why You Should Focus on Improving the Essential Leadership Skill of Reflection

Four professors from world class business schools studied the impact of reflection on performance, and the results were amazing. The lesson for leaders is clear: grinding it out is far less effective than taking small amounts of time to reflect on and improve performance.

Through a combination of field studies and lab experiments, the team of researchers from Harvard University, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, and HEC Paris (École des Hautes Études Commerciales) demonstrate that “deliberate attempts to learn from previous experience generate higher performance outcomes as compared to the accumulation of additional experience alone.” In other words, taking time to reflect is crucial to success.

Their work shows that the act of reflection builds confidence (emotional effect) and improves the understanding of the causal relationship between actions and outcomes (cognitive effect). You feel more confident after taking time to reflect on your performance and reflecting does actually improve your performance. 

If you are thinking that all this reflection sounds time consuming, it isn’t. Results were dramatically improved in one of their studies by simply adjusting the training program for new hires into a technical support operation by having one group reflect on their training for just 15 minutes at the end of the day. At the end of a ten day period all trainees in the program are tested in order to assess the extent to which trainees learned the main lessons taught during the training. The group who were guided to reflect for 15 minutes at the end of each day scored 23% higher on the test than those who simply continued training for the last 15 minutes of each day. That’s a remarkable jump for such a simple and relatively quick intervention.

Most of us get this wrong, though. When participants in another of the team’s studies were given the choice between spending time reflecting or using that time to gain additional experience in a task, only eighteen percent chose to reflect. The team ran this study to try and determine whether the performance gain of deliberate learning is common wisdom. It’s not. And that means an advantage for you and your team.

Groups who use “post mortem” exercises to review and assess performance will improve for the future more than those who simply move on to the next project. But most teams don’t do this. The same is true for individual efforts. Crucially, that includes leaders.

Leaders who reflect on performance and practice deliberate learning will become more effective leaders. Leaders deal with complex situations where there are no easy or obvious answers. Taking time to parse through that complexity and nuance in review is essential. Moreover, stepping back for this type of analysis helps to remove the emotion from the experience. Or, perhaps better said, stepping back in this way helps to see more clearly how emotion played a role in the events. 

Harry Kraemer, former CEO of multibillion-dollar healthcare company Baxter International would often step back from the fray of leading 52,000 employees for self-reflection. For 37 years he did this every day and credits the exercise with being core to his success as a leader. It was also one of the first lessons he would implore leaders he groomed to learn. “If I’m going to help you develop as a leader, one of the first things I’m going to try to do is to help you understand the tremendous benefit of self-reflection,” he said in a recent article in Kellogg Insight, a publication of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University where he serves as a clinical professor of strategy.

The act of reflection has a huge impact and doesn’t require much time. So, why don’t we do it more often? It’s uncomfortable. As Kraemer says, “There could be a pretty big difference between what you say is important and what you’re actually doing, and you may not want to confront that.”

But confronting that is exactly what you must do in order to improve. Too often we avoid analyzing our performance for fear of what we might find. We might learn that we are off track, not listening enough, or are avoiding difficult situations. However, seeing and addressing those things are the difference-makers.

The act of reflection has worked magic for me over the years. Stepping back and reflecting, oftentimes when not in the office. I might be on a bike ride or taking a walk when I would reflect on leadership challenges. Sometimes a simple idea would emerge and be easy to execute. Other times, the road would be more difficult, as Kraemer points out. The discomfort for me often comes in the realization that I am avoiding a difficult but necessary conversation. But whenever I have followed up with action, even though the emotional labor of following through is intensely uncomfortable, the results have been enormously positive. It’s one of the most important ways I have grown as a leader and one of the most important ways that I have helped others to grow.

Oftentimes we do realize that facing difficult challenges is what makes us stronger as leaders. Indeed, that is the focus of a Harvard Business Review article “Crucibles of Leadership” co-authored by a pioneer of the contemporary field of leadership, Warren Bennis. Bennis’ co-author for the article is Robert Thomas, a senior executive with Accenture and the executive director of the Accenture Institute for High Performance at MIT, where he specializes in leadership and transformational change. Together they point out how reflection of facing challenges helped the exceptional leaders profiled in their article “to create a narrative around it, a story of how they were challenged, met the challenge, and became better leaders.” This is how meaningful and significant growth happens in leaders. It’s where crucial learning occurs that shapes future learning capabilities and enlarges leadership capacity.

In their analysis of leadership, the authors identify four essential skills, and state that “by far the most critical skill of the four is what we call ‘adaptive capacity.’ This is, in essence, applied creativity—an almost magical ability to transcend adversity, with all its attendant stresses, and to emerge stronger than before.” They key to that ‘adaptive capacity,’ they state, is dependent on the ability to grasp context and the hardiness to follow through on lessons learned from that analysis. In other words, reflection is essential to leadership.

You may or may not be faced with extreme challenges at the moment, but at some point you will. The more that you exercise your ability to reflect and adapt your approach according to the lessons you learn from that reflection, the better prepared you will be when the big challenges come. But more importantly, the smaller adjustments and adaptations you make in the meantime will be crucial to your growth as a leader. Practicing this—with as little a time commitment as 15 minutes—will greatly improve your leadership skills. Reflect, grow, and lead a little better every day, and soon you will be overcoming obstacles and accomplishing feats you might never thought possible.