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Replay your management video

by Mel Brooks, Executive coach and Programme Director at the Wits Business School

Run! Action! Quick decisions. Busy, busy, busy! Constantly moving forwards at an unrelenting pace. Covert glances at cell phone during meetings. Use cell phone in car. Rush from meeting to meeting. Implement! EXECUTE! And never forget to be PASSIONATE.

Are managers in this mode being effective? - or are they addicted to busy-ness?

One of the gravest dangers facing managers who are constantly in the above mode is that they learn nothing. Yet successful managers are those who constantly learn – about themselves, their colleagues, their staff, their markets. Managers addicted to busy-ness don’t gain five years’ experience in five years, not even five times one year’s experience - they’d be lucky to gain 60 times one month’s experience. They just keep running. And then the busy manager is promoted. But the odds of them being successful in a more senior position are greatly reduced if they have learnt nothing in their previous positions.

How do managers learn? I recall seeing in many ‘office’ related cartoons a sign on the wall with the word, THINK. I’m not quite sure what was meant by the sign but I believe a more appropriate sign today would be: REFLECT!

If managers do not take time out to reflect on the events of each day they are in danger of learning nothing from the day’s experiences. Of course the first step in recognising this need to learn on the job is to realise that what one learnt on that MBA or executive education programme represented mainly a series of frameworks and examples. The important question is - Are we, in our rush, using them? When asked, most managers look sheepish.

The need to reflect is not some offbeat philosophy but a very important requirement. Bruch and Goshal1 noted during their research that many managers simply react impulsively to pressing matters. They recommend that in order to avoid acting impulsively, managers should complete this four-step thought sequence whenever they are required to make a decision:

1. Take the time to reflect upon the present situation in relation to your strategic intentions.
2. Clearly state to yourself what you will do and why.
3. Act on your clear intentions, and
4. Gather feedback. In due course, collect information about the tangible and intangible outcomes of your actions and then feed the knowledge you’ve gathered into another purposeful reflection, in effect re-activating the cycle.

By carrying out this sequence managers will realise that purposeful reflection can occur even in the few minutes required to respond to a pressing matter.

For deeper reflection schedule a meeting with the most important manager in your working life: yourself. And remember, reflection is in itself a form of action. As managers are continuously asked to do more with less at a faster pace, and then when goals have been met to repeat the process, the need to reflect regularly and in a structured way becomes more and more vital.

Stephen Gill2 sees reflection as a form of communication that most often takes the form of dialogue with self but that it could also take the form of dialogue with others. Holding a dialogue with one's self is not muttering to yourself, it is rather a time for focussed thinking. Schedule time during the day, close the door and think about what you have been doing and what might have been done better. You may choose another time and venue but the workplace is best in that it will prove to you that the wheels will not come off if you are ‘absent’ for a period each day. And to those who say they can’t afford the time every day I say, stop fooling yourself. Work on managing better rather than frantically running round. Self-dialogue is a means of gaining a perspective on yourself, your role and what you are going to do next.

A more detailed description of reflection comes from David Boud3 who describes it as an activity in which people, “recapture their experience, think about it, mull over it and evaluate it’. According to Boud it involves:

Returning to experience – that is to say recalling or detailing salient events.
Attending to (or connecting with) feelings – this has two aspects; using helpful feelings and removing or containing obstructive ones.
Evaluating experience – this involves re-examining experience in the light of one’s intent and existing knowledge etc. It involves integrating this new knowledge onto one’s conceptual framework.

Reflection is, therefore, simply stated, thinking about what you’ve done and what you’d do differently next time, or how you could improve on performance. Reflection sessions should also contain a period of reflection on what you’re going to have to do in the short, medium and long term.

Reflection is not like looking at a mirror – there you see the now. Reflection is about replaying your internal video, stopping it occasionally (possibly rewinding and replaying) as you thoroughly review and try to learn from experience.

1. Bruch and Goshal, The Busy Manager, Harvard Business Review, February, 2002
2. Stephen J. Gill, The Manager’s Pocket Guide to Organisation Learning, Amherst MA: HRD Press 2000.
3. David Boud (eds.) (1985) Reflection, Turning experience into learning, London: Kogan Page.