Don't Just Do: The Power of Reflection at Work

In today’s fast-paced world, productivity is often viewed as a measure of efficiency. But in our rush, we often forget to reflect on our goals and decisions, or introspect about our emotions and behaviors. Especially under pressure, we scramble and feel overwhelmed, and forget our why and how. Interestingly, research shows that this focus on doing can actually be counter-productive. What are we sacrificing when we rush through assignments in order to meet quotas or meet goals? How much are we really learning vs. losing?

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What's more valuable: experience or reflection?

When it comes to workplace learning, there are two primary varieties: experiential and deliberate. Experiential learning is that which we gain from completing similar tasks over and over again. After we’re familiar with the basics of a particular kind of assignment, we’re able to perform similar activities repeatedly without even having to think about the intricacies of what we’re doing. In this way, experiential learning leads to our capacity to perform tasks automatically, even unconsciously. Deliberate learning, on the other hand, involves an additional step. Not only do you accumulate experience by completing tasks multiple times, but you also take time to reflect on those experiences (Di Stefano et al., 2014). This is where the truly valuable learning comes in.

Studies have found that, once we have gathered a certain amount of experience, the benefit of continuing to perform similar tasks is far inferior to that of pairing that experience with efforts to analyze and reflect on it (Di Stefano et al., 2014). In other words, taking the time to think about the significance of the work you’re doing is far more useful to you than continuing to complete assignments that are similar to the work that you’ve been doing over an extended period of time, regardless of your proficiency. 

You may feel that the need to critically evaluate your work is unnecessary if you’ve been in the same line of work for several years. After all, if you feel that you’re able to do your work in your sleep, what’s the point of taking the time to really think about it? In fact, research has found that, regardless of work experience, all employees experience loss of knowledge over time. The amount of information that people remember depreciates over time, but this occurs at a significantly higher rate among individuals who work for organizations who don’t actively practice reflection (Argote & Miron-Spektor, 2011). This is one of the many reasons why reflection has been promoted in workplaces throughout the world, regardless of specialty, experience, or prestige.

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What does self-reflection entail?

In a general sense, reflection refers to personal investigation of past experiences. It involves analyzing experiences and their causes, effects, and future implications (Hoyrup, 2004). When it comes to workplace reflection, employees are expected to think about the work they do on a daily basis and why they’re doing it – what it means to them, their coworkers, and their customers. They’re also tasked with thinking about how they can get more out of their work experiences and how they can become better at what they do. As with most workplace philosophies, reflection can be divided into five different perspectives, each of which emphasizes certain practices:

1. Constructivist – Consider Impact

This perspective emphasizes growth through personal understanding. Constructivist reflection encourages people to think about the meaning of their work and how it relates to their role in the world around them. In the context of the workplace, this involves individual thinking about one’s work and its impact

2. Psychoanalytic – Consider the self

Like the constructivist perspective, the psychoanalytic perspective emphasizes self-reflection, particularly self-exploration. Within this school of thought, it is believed that people need to experiment in their own learning in order to gain true knowledge, actively acknowledging their own experiences. In the workplace, then, people are encouraged to treat their uniqueness as an asset to their work. 

3. Situative – Consider the context

This perspective is more community-based than the constructivist and psychoanalytic perspectives. People are believed to learn by actively participating in the surrounding community. So, as employees, people are expected to view themselves as members of a larger community (i.e. the workplace), thinking about how they can contribute to projects by offering the fruits of their personal strengths. 

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4. Critical-cultural – Challenge the status quo

This perspective challenges people to think critically about their surroundings. Within this school of thought, it is suggested that everyone is a product of their environment and must question why they are who they are. So, in a workplace context, employees are encouraged to challenge what they have been taught and think about how they can bring a variety of diverse perspectives to the table. 

5. Enactivist – Consider the whole

Finally, the enactivist perspective views reflection as a holistic process. People are seen as the product of multiple interactions, the center of interconnectedness between their biological, psychological, and cultural selves (Lundgren et al., 2017). As employees, then, people are encouraged to think about how every aspect of their lives combine to make them into the workers that they are, as well as how they can channel their experiences to make themselves better employees. 

Key elements of reflection

While some of these perspectives seem to directly contradict each other, many studies have found key concepts that are shared among them, emphasizing the most important elements of reflection:

1. Reflection must occur as soon as possible after the experience in question

For instance, after a meeting, employees must be allotted time to reflect on the experience: what they learned from it, how they can implement their new knowledge into their work, what it means to them as individuals, etc.

2. Employees need an uninterrupted period of time to reflect

In other words, there should be time set aside in the workday for employees to simply focus on their thoughts (Desjarlais & Smith, 2011). This allows them to dedicate their attention solely to what they’ve learned without concerning themselves with other assignments. 

3. Employees must be viewed as autonomous beings (Edwards, 1998)

This is the most important step. For employers, this means treating their subordinates as individuals rather than as cogs in the machine, so to speak. They have to be recognized as people with opinions and thoughts so that they are allowed the space to truly reflect on what they’ve learned, thinking about ways they can better contribute to the goals of the company. 

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How to employ reflection in the workplace

Here are a few strategies that have been proven to increase productivity and engagement among employees:

1. Share perspectives and develop a common training

This practice caters to the reflection perspectives that promote community interaction. Although many employees have shared experiences in the workplace, everybody retains and interprets information differently. When people are encouraged to talk to each other about what they’ve learned, they are better able to understand different perspectives, which makes them more likely to effectively collaborate with their colleagues and appeal to an array of customers.

2. Ask for feedback

When you ask your colleagues or bosses for their thoughts on your work, you learn more about your impact as an employee. This way, you familiarize yourself with the effects of your work, furthering your self-awareness. Asking for feedback also allows you to reflect on your practice, perhaps reconsidering the ways in which you go about daily tasks.

3. Encourage employees to experiment and innovate

For many employers, the thought of allowing their employees to experiment with their work is unappealing. However, when people are encouraged to access their personal experiences in the workplace, they become more engaged (Hoyrup, 2004). Acknowledging the diversity and uniqueness among employees invites an additional level of involvement, allowing people to relate more to their work. 

To many people, reflection seems to be an unnatural aspect of workplace productivity, more an unnecessary hindrance than a useful practice. To be sure, there are several reasons why reflection may make work harder for some employees. For one, especially when it comes to seasoned workers, the idea of reflection can feel like an insult, a challenge to their competence. For others, the mere idea of critically analyzing past experiences can be unnerving, as it invites the possibility of recognizing mistakes or flaws in their process (Rigg & Trehan, 2008). Research has shown, however, that this close examination of past experiences is essential to personal growth among employees, and is therefore critical to overall workplace performance.

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Reflection at work boosts awareness & purpose

Several studies regarding the impacts of reflection on employee performance and growth have found that reflection makes people more aware of their work as a whole. Many employees have reported increased understanding of the tasks that they complete on a daily basis, recognizing the significance of the work and its impacts rather than just paying attention to the best ways to quickly accomplish their assignments (Nilsen et al., 2012). Of course, an integral part of this process often involves recognizing mistakes and challenging long-held thoughts, but employees typically view these aspects of reflection as essential to their growth and development in the workplace (Nilsen et al., 2012). In this way, people acknowledge the importance of workplace reflection, recognizing that the changes that must be made are worth the payoff. 

Introspect with LIFE Intelligence

If it’s not something you’re used to, reflection can be a difficult and seemingly tedious task to implement into your daily life. LIFE Intelligence is a different kind of productivity app, one that focuses just as much on reflection as it does process and performance. With this free goal-tracking app, you can watch yourself navigate the changes that you want to make to become a more productive, self-aware person, both in the workplace and in your personal life. Mission 3.5 (out of 9 core missions on self, career, and relationship development) is dedicated to helping you understand the countless benefits of reflection and how to make it an essential part of your life. To learn more and start practicing reflection today, download the app for free today.

LIFE Intelligence: Live Better

Abby Stark
December 27, 2020

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