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Reflective Practice For Leaders In Four Easy Steps

Written by: Zoryna O'Donnell, Senior Level Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

Executive Contributor Zoryna O'Donnell

Reflection is often named as one of the key competencies of effective leaders needed in the chaotic, turbulent, and rapidly changing business environment that has become the “new normal” and is referred to as VUCA world – volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous.

business people clapping celebrating in the office
“By three methods may we learn wisdom; first, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.” (Confucius)

Kathleen Fiteb and her colleagues at Texas State University argued that leadership is an open system consisting of inputs and outputs, the processes within the system boundaries and the context (or environment) in which the system operates. They described key elements of the open system of leadership as follows:

  • leader characteristics or attributes are the system inputs;

  • interactions of the leader with followers are the primary processes;

  • actions of individuals or organisations, as outputs, become the outcomes;

  • the context defines the resources, goals, and limitations.

But all open systems are inherently unstable, therefore such systems should be monitored and adjusted to compensate for perturbations or instability. Reflective practice is an essential tool for monitoring all elements of this system and adjustment as and when required.

Maureen Chiana, Executive Contributor to Brainz Magazine gives us several compelling reasons why reflection is important for leaders:

  • it helps leaders make more informed and balanced decisions by allowing for a better understanding of motivations and biases;

  • it promotes personal growth by helping leaders identify areas where they can improve and take action to make positive changes;

  • it helps to enhance leadership skills, leadership styles and effectiveness;

  • it improves relationships with others by helping leaders understand other perspectives and communicate more effectively.

However, as Cynthia Roberts, Associate Professor of Organisational Leadership and Supervision at Purdue University pointed out, while we are seeing an increasing focus on the value of reflective capacity as a means for meeting the challenges of VUCA world, the ability to reflect is not necessarily an inherent attribute of leaders. This ability “must be cultivated over time, and unless one is actively engaged in the practice of reflection, it is doubtful that this capability will develop on its own.”

A Reflective Practice Toolkit published by the Cambridge University Libraries lists the following common barriers to reflection:

  • (Perceived) lack of time – we can get swamped by the never-ending pressures of competing priorities and tight deadlines.

  • Lack of skill and know-how – it could be difficult to decide which of the many models of reflection to use.

  • Organisational culture – not every organisation supports the idea of reflective practice in the workplace.

  • Environment – we don’t always realise that reflective practice could take place almost anywhere, we just need to experiment to find the right environment for us.

  • Motivation – a lack of time and support can take a toll on our ability to reflect, especially when we can’t see positive changes resulting from our reflection straight away;

  • Ourselves – being reflective takes a certain level of self-insight which can be uncomfortable for some of us, especially if we are not used to it.

Together with my fellow executive coaches Lindsey Popplewell and Theresa Dzendrowskyj, I created a simple yet very effective model of reflective practice for leaders which helps to overcome these barriers.

Our model of reflective practice is informed by insights from neuroscience, behaviour science and positive psychology. It is based on a combination of an acronym and kinaesthetic physical mnemonic (memory device) which uses fingers to remember the acronym EASY where each letter stands for one of the four steps:

  • Establishing your intention – what do you want to achieve / what area of your leadership you wish to focus on?

  • Acknowledging what went well – you can continue doing that.

  • Stepping up your game – reflecting on what you have learned and deciding what you can do differently, perhaps even better, to enhance your leadership impact.

  • Your commitment to act – decide what you will do and do it!

Our EASY model is effective because:

  • Establishing intention focuses our limited executive attention on what matters to us and helps in action planning and protecting the pursuit of our current goal from distractions and temptations. Setting intention also provides accountability and allows us to make proactive choices.

  • Acknowledging what went well helps to confront and overcome our negativity bias. As Dr Rick Hanson pointed out, our “brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones”. We can overcome this bias by reminding ourselves about our achievements and successes. Acknowledging what went well will quieten our inner critic and boost our self-compassion, self-esteem and confidence in preparation for the next step.

  • Stepping up our game by deciding what we can do differently to achieve even better results helps us to prepare for future actions. During this step we are “slowing down in order to speed up” – we are using our “system 2 thinking” (slow, deliberate and conscious) to create our action plan and to move it into our “system 1 thinking” (fast, automatic and effortless). If you have not heard about Daniel Kahneman’s groundbreaking work about decision-making yet, read his best-selling book ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’.

  • Your commitment to act is not just about deciding what to do and when. Any commitment is only true when we act upon it. This steps builds on a positive state and momentum of the previous steps thus helping us to move from decision to action.

To make reflective practice even more beneficial for you, try to massage each finger while you are going through the corresponding step of our EASY model. We know from research, that finger massage is conducive to improving intelligence and sharpening mind. And regular finger exercise can improve brain circulation and form new exciting points in the brain, which is beneficial to the improvement of understanding, memory and thinking.

EASY illustration

©2023 O'Donnell, Z., Dzendrowskyj, T. & Popplewell, L.

Using our model of reflective practice is very quick and easy – you can do it during a short coffee break (here is an excuse to have it!), your walk, exercise, or as part of any other routine activity so that it will become a habit. According to a 2021 study, by “piggy-backing” on your existing routine you will be able to form your new habit of reflective practice quicker and easier.

And remember: The more you use our EASY model of reflective practice, the easier it gets and the better results you achieve in terms of your leadership impact.

Follow Zoryna on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn. You can also visit her website to learn more.

Zoryna O'Donnell Brainz Magazine

Zoryna O'Donnell , Senior Level Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Zoryna O’Donnell is a change consultant, coach, mentor, trainer, public speaker and author. She aims to help organisations and individuals to exceed their expectations of what is possible for them to achieve by unlocking the power of their brains and minds, enriching their soft skills and increasing resilience. Zoryna does this by using insights from applied neuroscience, psychology, behavioural science and other relevant disciplines.

She is a creator, principal coach and trainer delivering a number of high-impact coaching and training programmes, including the Leading Change with the Brain in Mind™ Programme and the Breakthrough Leadership Development Programme™ - accredited by The Institute of Leadership and Management, one of the most prestigious leadership authorities in the world.



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