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Reflection is one of the most important aspects of management, but we give it little attention. It may also be the thing managers most avoid, afraid of being alone with their thoughts.

Harvard Business School professor Joseph Badaracco begins his new book Step Back with the story of the founder of a very successful venture capital firm who advises entrepreneurs when he invests in their firm: “If I ever come into your office and find you looking out the window with your feet up on the desk, I’m going to double your salary.”

The wisdom in that advice is obvious. But it also raises what keeps many of us from attempting such reflection: Like the heroic image of Rodin’s The Thinker or a Buddhist monk in repose, it seems beyond us – the requirement to summon up worthy thoughts intimidating.

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I had a boss whom I would occasionally startle out of reflective thought when I wandered into his office. Sometimes his feet would even be up on the desk. I always felt guilty, as if I was taking him away from something important while in comparison what I wanted to chat about was mundane. Later, when his office was mine, I never allowed such stillness and reflection, instinctively wanting to be constantly active (as if thinking isn’t active) but also instinctively fearing that if anyone ever caught me in such repose my salary would be halved or, perhaps worse, I would be laughed at.

Reflection was not something to be done purposefully at work. It was left for odd moments.

And after interviewing more than 100 managers, Prof. Badaracco found that pattern common: Busy, responsible people make time to reflect, but not during extended periods of solitude. Instead, they rely on what he calls “mosaic” reflection: squeezing it into “the cracks and crevices of their everyday lives.

He urges you to aim for “good enough” reflection. Do what you can, trying to make sure you’re spending some time every day or every week in some form of reflection. “From time to time, look for opportunities to do better. But recognize that there will be times when you don’t reflect much. That isn’t a failure on your part but simply a reality of life,” he writes.

It helps to ponder the obstacles to reflection but he stresses that unlike Captain Renault – Claude Rains’s role in the film Casablanca – don’t settle for rounding up the usual bad suspects. Sure, organizations are flatter and leaner, and technology bombards us, limiting reflection. But deeper issues are at play, one of them the cult of productivity and the accompanying antipathy to feeling idle. As one manager told him: “I hate the feeling of not doing anything that I don’t think is productive. I have a feeling that reflection on my own is not productive.”

With that comes restless brains. “Our thoughts zigzag almost constantly. Extended moments of clarity and control are the exception and hardly the rule,” Prof. Badaracco notes. “As a result, it is very difficult, even if you have plenty of time, to reflect in the calm, focused way” that the image of Rodin’s sculpture suggests.

That’s why you should lower your standards to good enough, looking for small chances to reflect.

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His interviews suggest such moments may come piggybacked onto other tasks, such as exercising or commuting to work. Of course, working remotely may have robbed you of that commute. And it’s worth considering whether your preferred exercise encourages or discourages reflection. For me, walking and biking are superb for letting thoughts roam, but my t'ai chi offers the opposite to reflection – a chance to wallow in stillness. You probably want reflection and stillness in your life, so plan for both.

He found good conversations can be helpful for reflection, even if that runs against the notion that reflection must be solitary. Find a confidant or group who can help you develop your ideas. He also suggests writing to be another “good enough” way of reflecting. I certainly find I can figure out what I am thinking – illuminate it, and wrestle it into clarity – by writing an e-mail or memo. Many of his interviewees kept journals.

That may not seem dramatic enough. But he notes Marcus Aurelius’s famed Meditations were essentially mosaic reflections, in which he stepped back briefly. “Despite his intermittent efforts, Marcus was able to return again and again to themes and questions he really cared about. His occasional, fragmentary reflections produced a work that has truly stood the test of time,” Prof. Badaracco writes.

Without reflection, he warns, we drift. Others shape and direct us. So give some thought to reflection, and how you might improve at this little discussed and too often shunned – but vital – activity.

Cannonballs

  • Executive coaches Stephen Newman and Wanda Wallace identify four types of reflection: On the mountaintop, once a year, to grapple with “where am I headed”; twice-annual leadership health checks, gauging “how am I doing as a leader”; looking back, as needed, for “why did we get the results we got”; and quarterly horizon scans, to figure out “what’s going on outside our company and our industry?”
  • Trainer Dan Rockwell notes that reflection can be for pattern recognition or self-reflection. For the latter, ask what is satisfying and dissatisfying about your current situation? Then reflect on what that says about you, your values, and your priorities.
  • You lose more from a bad decision than you gain from a good one, suggests leadership development consultant Michael Hyatt. In particular, beware of getting enamoured with a rosy scenario, overemphasizing the wrong ingredient in the decision, or getting trapped by binary thinking.

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