The power of reflection in the workplace

Jun 01, 2018
Six executive coaches reflect on the benefit of reflection at an individual, team and organisational level.

Six executive coaches walk into a bar where their main objective was to discuss the type of cultural environment that makes it easy for an organisation to benefit from highly effective teamwork amongst its people. For the sake of anonymity, we’re calling them C1 to C6. For the sake of transparency, we need to admit that two of them were us.

Learning and blame

“Above all else, teams need to work within a learning culture,” began C2 when the first round was safely in. “As David Garvin wrote in the Harvard Business Review: ‘The world is changing. We’ve got new business models. If your rate of learning isn’t greater than the rate of change, you’re going to fall behind.’ I’ve been thinking about this a lot.”

“Oh yeah,” exclaimed C1. “I like that a lot.” As did C6, adding, “This makes real sense to me as a coach. It provides clarity around what I’m seeking to achieve. I want to help organisations create an environment in which team members are constantly learning and refining what they do. But sometimes it’s hard to get there, isn’t it?”

“Definitely,” said C3. “I’m working with a team right now who really struggle to reflect meaningfully on the ‘what just happened?’ question. The members seem more interested in justifying their positions than in harvesting any lessons from the outcomes that derive from their work together.”

“Ah,” muttered C5. “It’s the old blame culture, isn’t it? I come across that so often in the organisations I work with and it’s so crippling, so counterproductive. It’s like Matthew Syed wrote in Black Box Thinking, ‘When something goes wrong, we like to point the finger at someone else.’ It’s hard to learn from ‘what just happened’ when we’re counting the fingers that are pointing at us.” At which point, five fingers turned towards C5, suggesting that it might be time for the next round.

Resilience and business as usual

By the time C5 returned from the bar, the conversation had moved on and C4 was holding court. “I think there may be too much talk of resilience within some of the organisations I work with. Do you not think that sometimes, staff are expected to bear too much?”

“Absolutely,” replied C1. “Perhaps we should be coaching them around how best to resist, rather than to be resilient.” At which point, C3 reached for a handy napkin that was lying on the table and drew the following diagram while the rest looked on:


“You see,” said C3 when the masterpiece was complete, “I’m getting worried that in some of the organisations I’m working with, resilience is now being seen as being a prerequisite for carrying out business as usual, rather than as a way to manage stress when something tough comes along, which requires you to dig deep.”

“You know,” interjected C6, “that’s got me thinking. I mean, if the pressure to produce is so high in an organisation that its people need resilience just to get through a typical working day, what resource can they reach for when a crisis hits their sector or their company? That’s a great diagram, C3.”

“Thanks,” said C3 modestly. “I suppose I’m just learning to use caution while seeking to develop greater levels of personal and team resilience with my clients. I see it as avoiding collusion with any organisational stakeholder whose world-view is one of ‘weaponising’ resilience by cranking up performance requirements to the point where it becomes a non-negotiable necessity when carrying out business as usual.”
“Wise words,” said C2. “Now, go and get your round in.”

Alignment and emotional intelligence

“I’d like to talk a bit about the whole notion of alignment for a while,” said C2. “There’s a lot of talk about how important it is for an organisation’s people and teams to be aligned to its mission and values, but what does that mean in the real world? Is this really something it makes sense for teams to align to?”

“Particularly in light of the ‘values inconsistency’ we so often see coming down to middle managers from boards,” chipped in C1. “That really confuses a lot of the people I coach.”

“But,” asked C3, “if we don’t have a clearly articulated mission and values, how do people answer the ‘what do we do now?’ question?” This drew quite a lengthy response from C5:

“I listened to a podcast recently in which alignment was described in terms of a person or team being tuned into what their system was wanting, saying or feeling at any one moment. The speaker felt that meaningful organisational alignment occurred when a team could match up the stuff it was feeling, wanting or saying as an entity in its own right, with the bigger picture; with the stuff that was being felt, required and articulated across the organisation as a whole.  They called it emotional alignment – I liked that.”

“I heard that podcast too,” said C4. “It’s the one where the speaker talks about an organisation having an essence and a character. And that essence and character having a voice to which its people and teams can learn to attune their own voice. Perhaps it’s helpful to look at this as the deepening of collective emotional intelligence across an organisation and its various teams. Would that be helpful, do you think?” 

“Speaking of the group collective voice...,” said C1 and headed swiftly towards the bar.

Trust and vulnerability

“A lot of this stuff comes back to trust, doesn’t it?” asked C1 on returning from the bar. “I’m finding quite a bit of cynicism in some of the teams I work with. It seems to be rooted in a dilution of trust both amongst colleagues and between an organisation and its people.”

“Yes,” answered C3. “It’s like Amy Edmonson says in Teaming: when people trust and respect each other, it produces a sense of confidence and psychological safety. And this, in turn, encourages them to share their thinking without fear of being embarrassed or rejected.”

“Patrick Lencioni calls that the ability to be vulnerable,” said C2, “because team members have a confidence that their peers’ intentions are always good so there’s no need to be self-protective. That, I think, ties back to the whole blame culture stuff we were discussing earlier.”

“Yes, Lencioni says that a dilution of trust is the first and perhaps most important sign of a dysfunctional team,” said C4. “I find that to be true so often. It’s been particularly so in the climate of competitiveness that seems to be a necessary evil in many organisations. It’s hard to turn off those competitive instincts to develop a trusting environment within your team.”

“I think the wider organisation needs to involve itself in helping to make this happen,” added C5. “It’s in their interests. I mean, think of the time and energy that’s wasted in teams trying to understand and manage other team members’ intentions. It’s a shocking waste of resource and really serves as a drain on morale.”

Reflecting on organisational culture

The issues discussed by C1 to C6 are all big issues for reflection at an individual, team and organisational level. Time spent reflecting on these issues can pay big dividends in terms of morale, engagement and performance. We don’t always have to reflect together in the boardroom. It’s often better to visit a decent coffee shop, restaurant or the local pub – or even organise a hotel-based away day. All of these discussion points offer an opportunity to establish some ground rules around banishing blame and exploring vulnerability – at least for the duration of the conversation – while considering some of these hugely important organisational culture issues.

We’ve found reflective practice amongst peers to be a highly effective approach, both in our own firm and in working with our clients. We recommend it wholeheartedly to all organisations.

Ian Mitchell and Siân Lumsden are partners in Eighty20Focus, a boutique firm of consultants, executive coaches and leadership trainers.