Three Tips For Cautious Reflection

We've been talking about how reflecting on past events is a tool to enable you to lead better in the future.  Reflecting on past experiences is an important part of self-developing your leadership skills.  While you can attendclasses to help you understand the steps of reflection, skillful reflection is only developed with practice.  Everyone processes their experiences.  Leadership skills grow when experiences are processed effectively.  Many times, leadership and relationship problems result from improper reflection.

So what should you avoid?  Well this isn't an exhaustive list, but it will get you started.

Avoid Bias and Apply Objectivity

Many times we judge the intentions of others as being the worst of our own. If you look honestly at your own experience you may have experienced this.  It's most common when you don't know or like some of the other people in the story.  In the book In A Pit With A Lion On A Snowy Day, Mark Batterson quoted another book, Learned Optimism.  Dr. Martin Seligman said that we all have what he calls an "explanatory style."  This is how we process experiences.  For example, assume you're waiting to meet a friend for dinner at a nice restaurant.  They're 45 minutes late.  You might wonder if something's happened to them.  You may figure they are arrogant or forgetful and just stood you up.  You may be afraid and think they were in an accident.  Your explanatory style sets the tone for how you process events in your life.  As Batterson said in the book; "while you can't control your experiences, you can control your explanations."  You decide how you will carry that memory around the rest of your life.

Now apply this to a work experience.  Leaders must be objective and consider several explanations for a particular event in order to process it fully.  As an example, I once worked with a supervisor who would be vague about their direction or description of the features of our product.  Since I was new to the industry, I misunderstood the feature or how it worked.  As the sales person, I would end up enrolling a customer who wanted something we didn't have.  Because I never got any commission on anything I sold for this company (which is the other reason why I left), I had nothing to gain by doing this.  Yet I was perceived as someone who sold things we didn't have.  Being new, I didn't know all the right questions to ask.  When I thought I knew, I went and sold the product.  But then I was either wrong, or I was helpless, having to continually return and ask for more information.  The whole experience was very frustrating.  Every time it happened, I felt like such a jackass that I used to tell my wife, "Well, so-and-so put a brass-plated set of donkey ears on me again."

Reflecting on that experience has provided a number of stories and lessons in leadership.  Three quick ones jump to mind:

  1. Leaders get better results by equiping their people to succeed.
  2. Leaders must apply honorable motives to their assumptions about their associates. Otherwise why associate with them?
  3. The receiver cannot be totally to blame for misunderstanding the message.

When you're reflecting, evaluate several explanations for the reasons why something happened.  If you just settle on one, you'll lose perspective.  Your reflection needs to consider several different possibilities and then the experience has that many more applications.

Avoid Blame

While this is similar to the above section, let's continue with the same story.  If I focused on what I didn't like and blamed my supervisor I run the risk of wasting the experience.  I should blame my supervisor for his actions.  But if that's all I do, I'm the loser.  When you're processing an experience like this, make sure you don't blame others for the consequences.

The past is the past.  The consequences that resulted from the event are yours now.  You can't anything about what happened to you but make sure you don't get back in the same line again or that you don't do it to someone else.  All of your lessons need to be about your behavior.  What would you do differently if you were in the same position?  What would you do differently if you were the other person?  Focus on what you would do differently.  This focus on yourself helps you keep from becoming bitter, and it helps you apply constructive thought processes to similar events in the future.

An additional benefit arises when you encounter someone else in the same position situation.  Now your advice can be what you would do in the same place.  You're not telling them what to do, but you are telling them what you would consider and what you would do.  Your friend remains free to act and you're not managing or supervising them; you're simply advising.

Avoid over-reflection or under-reflection

Balance in reflection is an art.  It's difficult to know how much or how little to re-process past events.  However, there are some questions you can ask to tell if you are too focused or not-focused-enough on the past.

  1. Do past events cause you to fear something in the future or worry about it?  "Oh, I'm never going to do THAT again!" When reflecting on past events, it is important to take away all the lessons you can, but never let that to force you to fear or worry about the future.  When you get anxious, you never perform as well as you would otherwise.  Many people, afraid of failing, choke.  They call it choking because that's what you do.  Anxiety causes you to choke or constrict your movements.
  2. Do past events cause you guilt?  Real guilt is productive.  If you've done something wrong, go apologize and make it right.  If your guilt paralyzes you or you meditate about what you should have done differently but you're powerless to do anything now, that guilt is a waste of time and a distraction.  Any reflection that freezes you in the past is a dead end.
  3. Do past events just seem too painful so you avoid them?  Do you catch yourself forgetting things that others remember?  Sometimes you build defenses against painful memories.

If you tend to worry or guilt, may I suggest a "diet of the mind" as John Nash said in A Beautiful Mind.  Refuse to indulge your mind of those "certain appetites."  Focus on finding the productive nuggets and moving forward.  Over time reflecting on the same issues will induce less worry or guilt.  Under-reflection can be handled by asking someone to give you some feedback on how you're processing the events.

What are your experiences with reflection?  Have you found it useful?  Can you suggest other things that must be avoided or good ways to take advantage of time reflecting?  I'd love to hear from you.