“The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks.[Christopher Hitchens]
This week I was invited to be a guest on the Good Practice podcast (a podcast on Work, Learning and Performance) which I accepted with some hesitation.
(You should have seen the long-winded DM response in Twitter I gave to Ross Garner contemplating and pontificating exactly what topic we should talk about because, over the last couple of years, I’ve been having a quiet existential crisis of the value that managers and indeed, learning and development actually place on LEARNING in the workplace as opposed to job performance).
My experiences and observations are...very little.
However, I’m not bitter about it just pragmatic and in this time of deliberation and reflection, I’ve come to accept that what I can do for my clients is to meet them where they’re at – not to get too ahead of myself and to not be taken over by flights of fancy of possibility because really, in actual fact, people see the workplace as a place to do just that…work, not learning.
In their minds, these two are separate concepts. Just because I think they’re the same does not mean that others see it that way.
The majority are simply trying to survive day by day going through an exploding inbox and trying to catch up with their work in between meetings.
So I’ve resolved that for now, what I do with my clients is to help them with the day-to-day job, to find ways that they can do their job smarter, quicker and easier by helping them use the tools they have at their workplace; to help them with new behaviours around collaboration and knowledge sharing; and to show them things that will minimise and streamline their work and meetings so that it reduces duplication or repetition for them.
My secret hope is that by helping them do this, what it is I’m doing is helping them FREE up time so that they can start taking a far more meaningful and purposeful approach to their work that would help them build new relationships at work; identify areas of potential collaboration or co-operation; create new networks and spark new ideas and insights that can return some value to their organisation – or even surface a new skill, capability or experience that they would want to learn further, one that could be supported by the organisation (because it may help in the future) or one that could help them find future work elsewhere.
However, Ross asked a thought-provoking question as to whether organisations would indeed help support their employees to develop new skills or whether they’d just make them redundant. As someone who has been made redundant four times in my career, I know the answer here so for me personally, I realise that it’s critical for people in organisations to start looking at what the next phase of their job, career or life direction is going to be – and learning how to learn – and learn fast – is going to be a skill they’d need to pick up.
Earlier this week, Steven Wheeler (@SteveWheeler) shared a television snippet of him on a television show in the UAE where he was talking about Reflective Practice. For some reason, this piqued my curiosity and I think it’s because I’ve been doing this for most of my life through journalling and blogging without realising it. He mentioned the work of Donald Schon who is a researcher who wrote a book called Reflective Practice: How Professionals Think in Action published in 1983 so I started down a rabbit warren here.
What is reflective practice?
Reflective practice is an active, dynamic action-based and ethical set of skills, placed in real time and dealing with real, complex and difficult situations.
Moon, J. (1999), Reflection in Learning and Professional Development: Theory and Practice, Kogan Page, London.
I think the reason I found this concept fascinating is that although much has been written about the reflective practice, it seems that it only seems to be used as a practical skill for certain professions such as medical, nursing, educators and academics.
Reflection is not new and to some people, it may seem a bit “airy fairy”, too conceptual, too introspective and a wasted effort. Some think it similar to “navel gazing”.
I remember the days when we went through corporate training in the early years and we were asked to journal our thoughts of the assignments. How many rolled their eyes, made some excuse not to do the journal writing and complained about the whole point of doing it?
However reflective practice is so much more than being introspective.
It is more about how to “identify the assumptions governing (your) actions, locate the historical and cultural origins of the assumptions, question the meaning of the assumptions and develop alternative ways of acting”. (Rigg C & Trehan K (2008), Journal of European Industrial Training, Volume 32, No 5).
In effect, if corporations are looking to the future and solve pesky complex problems, then how many of them are actively supporting their people to do this in the workplace – or is this considered a “dangerous idea”?
It’s not only a compelling question – it’s also a contradiction!
In The Reflective Practioner, Donald Shon proposed that reflective practice was indeed opposite to what was happening in the workplaces which tended to prefer the “technical rationality of problem-solving” rather than the “professional artistry of problem-setting”. (Shon, D (1983): The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action).
Is there a Place for Reflective Practice in the Corporate Workplace?
So I started to think about “reflective practice in the workplace’ in particular, in a corporate context. A context of business. Business meaning products, services, customers, stakeholders, managers, a market, competition.
Is there such a thing? Can it be of benefit to the individual and the organisation?
If reflective practice means you start to question the meaning of assumptions and develop alternative ways, is this dangerous to the organisation because it will lay bare how and why they do the things they do.
I did a bit of a search and came across a research paper called Critical Reflection in the Workplace: Is It Just Too Difficult where the authors debated whether reflection is indeed a worthwhile endeavour in a workplace that may be rife with the dynamics of internal politics, tension, and competition.
In my own experience, as a reflective practitioner, over the years, this skill has helped me greatly to not only understand how I do my work and WHY I do it in particular ways and WHAT are the factors that affect my job performance but it’s also taught me a lot about myself and how I interact, engage and relate with others.
However, it has also come at a cost to me.
For example, when you reflect on your practice – and you’re doing it publicly, say through a blog – you are laying open and making your thinking visible. You’re questioning your OWN actions and to some, this is seen as a weakness. It comes across that you don’t know what you’re doing, that you’re questioning and hesitation in your own reputation and credibility as a professional. Also, others may take it as personal or professional criticism.
In the past, because of my blogged reflections, I’ve lost annual bonuses, threatened with job loss as it was seen as going “against the social media policy”, been put on performance reviews and told to delete my blog.
Regardless of this negative experience, I still believe that critical reflection is a skill that all workers will need to develop but there are safer ways to do this that doesn’t put them in a vulnerable position in their organisation.
One way is to rather than think of the big strategic and conceptual questions – the unanswerable ones (the ones I seem to bang on about) – look at what they can reflect on in the day-to-day work.
Keeping it Simple
For example, all workers need to undertake certain activities and tasks in their day. In order for you to include some reflective practice in your day, I’d say start small.
Pick a task or activity in your day such as a meeting you’re going to attend; or a presentation that you have to pitch to a prospect and then look at it as an opportunity to reflect not only AFTER your work but DURING it (Reflection-on-action versus Reflection-in-action).
In “reflection-in-action”, “doing and thinking are complementary. Doing extends thinking in the tests, moves, and probes of experimental action, and reflection feeds on doing and its results. Each feeds the other, and each sets boundaries for the other” (Schön, 1983, p. 280)
Reflection in action is an interesting concept and it’s something I do innately. It’s similar to “reading the room” but you also need to “read yourself” at the same time. Reading the room, I usually pick it up intuitively through body cues, language used, mannerisms, eye contacts, silence, pauses, particular seating arrangements and glances. Usually, your gut is a good indicator of what is happening.
Meanwhile reading yourself means that you are aware of your self-talk, your reactions to words or actions by others; your mannerisms (eg fidgeting), heart rate, how hot or warm you feel; your level of preparation; and so much more.
The above seem to be things I do inately but if I had to put some questions around how it is that I reflect in action and on action, it would be the following questions:
Reflection-In-Action (WHILE you are doing the activity)
- What is happening right here and now? (reading the room)
- What am I thinking and feeling right now? (reading myself)
- Why did I just say, think of feel that?
- Is this going in the direction I had planned?
- What can I do to get back on track?
- As a result of what I just said and did… (repeat the above)
Reflection On Action (when you have COMPLETED the activity)
- What happened?
- What did you think and feel during the situation?
- What did you learn in the situation?
- Why did you choose that particular approach?
- What would you have done differently?
Sharing Your Reflections
I’m all for sharing reflections publicly and openly but let’s get real here – I’m also a pragmatist.
For work and business contexts, let’s face it, if the culture, environment and situation are not conducive for you to do this or that you’re going to have some negative consequence then I’d err on keeping a private journal because learning the skill of reflective practice is going to serve you better than delaying or not undertaking the skill at all for fear of retribution and consequence in the workplace.
So what do you think?
Are you a reflective practitioner? How has reflective practice helped you in your work?
I’ve got a lot more to say about reflective practice but this is a start for now….thanks for reading!