How managers can boost their performance by taking time to slow down
Breaking out of the cycle of taking action can help managers keep up with change and make better decisions.
As the complexity and pace of change of modern business increases, the shelf-life of useful knowledge is becoming shorter. That can be a challenge for managers, many of whom have a strong bias towards taking action as often as possible.
When we're active and making decisions, we feel productive – and it's this positive feeling of productivity that leads managers into taking tried-and-true actions to solve familiar problems.
However, in a complex and unfamiliar environment, quickly taking familiar actions may actually be of detriment to yourself and the organisation – especially if they send you down the wrong path.
A better approach to operating successfully in complex environments is to make time to slow down by developing a routine of reflective practice.
Reflective practice is the process of pausing to examine actions and events in order to develop useful insights for the next occasion. It can be a way of noticing how we think about certain situations and coming up with new approaches.
The benefits of reflective practice
Reflective practice involves recalling the details of an event, such as what happened, how you felt as the event unfolded and why you might have felt that way.
It's critical to look at the event from different viewpoints, so you will want to consider how others might have viewed the situation, what assumptions you made about the situation and how these assumptions helped or hindered you.
With such considerations, you can better understand what actions you might take in the future and what small experiments you might try to advance your learning.
Even though it may seem counter-intuitive, establishing a routine of reflective practice can have a major impact on performance.
One study by researchers Francesca Gino and Bradley Staats found that when new employees were being trained to perform complex skills, those who were given 15 minutes a day to reflect and take stock of the lessons learned performed 20 per cent better than those who were not.
In another study, the same researchers found that when participants were given the choice to either keep practicing the skills that they were learning or take 15 minutes to reflect, the vast majority chose to keep practicing. Only 15 per cent of participants chose to reflect – but when they did, they significantly outperformed the people still practicing.
Including reflection in your routine
The best way to overcome any bias you might have towards action is to create a schedule for reflective practice and stick to it – preferably daily. With the time you've set aside, the goal is to take stock of the day's events and organise your thoughts about each situation into potential insights.
The process of writing down your thoughts has been found to significantly improve capacity for memory recall and learning. You can write your thoughts down either on paper or with one of the many journaling apps available.
Reflection doesn't have to be a solo sport. Reflecting with others is a great way to accelerate learning. There are two methods you can try – reflecting upon action and reflecting in action.
The first option involves reflecting sometime after an event has occurred and is invaluable for tapping into the perspectives and talents of others, such as after-action reviews or project post-mortems. It may be as simple as allocating the last five minutes of a meeting to reflect on what people observed during the meeting.
Reflecting in action involves inviting people to shift their focus in the moment from doing to observing, even if just for a short time. This method is sometimes described by the phrase "getting off the dance floor onto the balcony".
When you are on the dance floor, you're consumed with the action of dancing. But when you look at the dance floor from the balcony, you get a much wider view and can better see any patterns that may be developing.
Asking questions such as "what are you noticing about the way we're working at the moment?" can be invaluable for drawing attention to group dynamics that might otherwise stay hidden in the heat of discussion.
Reflective practice can help you and your team work more effectively, as long as you break the cycle of staying busy and set aside time to do it. Putting 15 minutes in your diary at the start or end of the day could eventually become a key part of your career development.