Why You Should Make Time for Self-Reflection (Even If You Hate Doing It)

by Jennifer Porter

When people find out I’m an executive coach, they often ask who my toughest clients are. Inexperienced leaders? Senior leaders who think they know everything? Leaders who bully and belittle others? Leaders who shirk responsibility?

The answer is none of the above. The hardest leaders to coach are those who won’t reflect — particularly leaders who won’t reflect on themselves.

At its simplest, reflection is about careful thought. But the kind of reflection that is really valuable to leaders is more nuanced than that. The most useful reflection involves the conscious consideration and analysis of beliefs and actions for the purpose of learning. Reflection gives the brain an opportunity to pause amidst the chaos, untangle and sort through observations and experiences, consider multiple possible interpretations, and create meaning. This meaning becomes learning, which can then inform future mindsets and actions. For leaders, this “meaning making” is crucial to their ongoing growth and development.

Research by Giada Di Stefano, Francesca Gino, Gary Pisano, and Bradley Staats in call centers demonstrated that employees who spent 15 minutes at the end of the day reflecting about lessons learned performed 23% better after 10 days than those who did not reflect. A study of UK commuters found a similar result when those who were prompted to use their commute to think about and plan for their day were happier, more productive, and less burned out than people who didn’t.

So, if reflection is so helpful, why don’t many leaders do it?  Leaders often:

• Don’t understand the process.  Many leaders don’t know how to reflect. One executive I work with, Ken, shared recently that he had yet again not met his commitment to spend an hour on Sunday mornings reflecting. To help him get over this barrier, I suggested he take the next 30 minutes of our two-hour session and just quietly reflect and then we’d debrief it. After five minutes of silence, he said, “I guess I don’t really know what you want me to do. Maybe that’s why I haven’t been doing it.”

• Don’t like the process. Reflection requires leaders to do a number of things they typically don’t like to do: slow down, adopt a mindset of not knowing and curiosity, tolerate messiness and inefficiency, and take personal responsibility. The process can lead to valuable insights and even breakthroughs — and it can also lead to feelings of discomfort, vulnerability, defensiveness, and irritation.

• Don’t like the results. When a leader takes time to reflect, she typically sees ways she was effective as well as things she could have done better. Most leaders quickly dismiss the noted strengths and dislike the noted weaknesses. Some become so defensive in the process that they don’t learn anything, so the results are not helpful.

• Have a bias towards action. Like soccer goalies, many leaders have a bias toward action. A study of professional soccer goalies defending penalty kicks found that goalies who stay in the center of the goal, instead of lunging left or right, have a 33% chance of stopping the goal, and yet these goalies only stay in the center 6% of the time. The goalies just feel better when they “do something.”  The same is true of many leaders. Reflection can feel like staying in the center of the goal and missing the action.

• Can’t see a good ROI.  From early roles, leaders are taught to invest where they can generate a positive ROI — results that indicate the contribution of time, talent or money paid off.  Sometimes it’s hard to see an immediate ROI on reflection — particularly when compared with other uses of a leader’s time.

If you have found yourself making these same excuses, you can become more reflective by practicing a few simple steps.

• Identify some important questions. But don’t answer them yet. Here are some possibilities:

◦ What are you avoiding?

◦ How are you helping your colleagues achieve their goals?

◦ How are you not helping or even hindering their progress?

◦ How might you be contributing to your least enjoyable relationship at work?

◦ How could you have been more effective in a recent meeting?

• Select a reflection process that matches your preferences.  Many people reflect through writing in a journal.  If that sounds terrible but talking with a colleague sounds better, consider that.  As long as you’re reflecting and not just chatting about the latest sporting event or complaining about a colleague, your approach is up to you.  You can sit, walk, bike, or stand, alone or with a partner, writing, talking, or thinking.

• Schedule time.  Most leaders are driven by their calendars. So, schedule your reflection time and then commit to keep it. And if you find yourself trying to skip it or avoid it, reflect on that!

• Start small.  If an hour of reflection seems like too much, try 10 minutes.  Teresa Amabile and her colleagues found that the most significant driver of positive emotions and motivation at work was making progress on the tasks at hand. Set yourself up to make progress, even if it feels small.

• Do it. Go back to your list of questions and explore them. Be still. Think. Consider multiple perspectives. Look at the opposite of what you initially believe. Brainstorm. You don’t have to like or agree with all of your thoughts — just think and to examine your thinking.

• Ask for help. For most leaders, a lack of desire, time, experience, or skill can get in the way of reflection.  Consider working with a colleague, therapist, or coach to help you make the time, listen carefully, be a thought partner, and hold you accountable.

Despite the challenges to reflection, the impact is clear. As Peter Drucker said: “Follow effective action with quiet reflection. From the quiet reflection, will come even more effective action.”


What’s Worse than a Difficult Conversation? Avoiding One.

by Deborah Rowland

    As a leader, how can you confront the truth about a situation without fearing rejection, or disagree with someone clearly and cleanly without obsessing about causing offense?

    I have been an executive with major corporations, including PepsiCo, Shell, and BBC Worldwide, as well as a change consultant. I’ve learned that in leadership roles the most important work often happens in the least comfortable spaces. Handled well, risky and confrontational conversations — especially those that surface awkward facts or get to the source of organizational tensions — can improve how we relate to each other, help organizations get a better grip on reality, and enable leaders to make better decisions.

    Yet while we tell ourselves that these conversations are tough because we don’t want to upset the other person, usually the squirmy feeling we’re experiencing has less to do with our counterpart and more to do with our own unconscious anxiety about not being able to handle the conversation well. Overcoming these anxieties and having the tough conversations anyway is one of a top leader’s most difficult challenges — critically needed yet chronically hard to do.

    For advice on how to handle it better, I turned to executives who have conversations on some of the trickiest topics in an organization: trust on teams, organizational restructuring, and addressing underperformance. By definition, these kinds of conversations require you to get out of your comfort zone. You may even feel like you’re betraying former loyalties to past products, old ways of working, personal affiliations, or previous professional identities.

    I found that four elements make the difference. First and foremost, in my own experience and with the executives I’ve talked to, is a shift in mindset from seeing difficult conversations as a hurdle to seeing them as a resource. Difficult conversations can actually strengthen personal bonds if you handle them well. For example, one leader I interviewed* was able to see a difficult conversation as a route to building trust in his team:

    I think you have to be very wary of the indirect comments and conversations that are going around in a meeting. You might see or sense a couple of people who are threatened by the restructure or are a little unhappy about one element. I had an incident recently where I had to say, “Look, I sense that a couple of us here feel threatened by this, so let’s actually have this out as a team,” and [I’m using that conversation to] build the levels of trust and openness among my team.

    Second, leaders must have the skill of regulating their emotional responses in difficult conversations. Now, too many leaders understand this to mean that they have to take emotions out of it completely. That’s not realistic, and burying feelings can be as destructive as letting them all spill out. Instead, skilled leaders use their emotions in a constructive way. One leader I talked to as part of this project was working with an external coach to help him get better at selling a major change. Here’s how he describes being in charge of his emotions during a tense conversation with that coach:

    Emotionally, I was not enthused, but something inside me was saying, well, he might have a point. And he was an external coach, so there was clearly no hidden agenda on his side. So I somehow forced myself to swallow my pride and my anger and discuss with him how he would go about achieving the goal I had, so that my CFO would be more likely to build and own the solution.

    Third, leaders need the ability to tell it as it is without waffle yet with compassion, balancing advocacy with inquiry. Here’s a leader bringing direct yet empathetic straight-talking into a restructuring:

    I remember having some of the toughest conversations around the restructure. For instance, with some of the countries we’d be on a videoconference and they would say, “Look, we want to form a different brand,” or they’d say, “We want to do our own logo,” just things like that, and I was having to be quite brutal, saying, “Just so you’re clear, this is nonnegotiable, and this is not your call.” I know it sounds horrid, but I did it with a smile on my face.

    Finally, the leader needs to be able to create psychological safety for the conversation. Take this leader, who used appreciation and a well-known dialogue tool to make it okay for his brand-new team to have a risky conversation with him:

    I arranged for a couple of days off-site where I asked them to help me understand the business. I said, “You know all about it, and you’ve grown up in it, and you’ve got hundreds of years of experience between you. I’ve got none. I want you to help me understand what’s going well and what’s not going so well.” I used the de Bono Six Thinking Hats as a tool to try to let their emotions out and legitimize them, doing some black cap [critical] thinking, just so I could get beyond the, “Oh, it’s nice to have you here,” and all the politeness.

    For all those involved as leaders in confronting truth and enabling others to do so, the essential message is simple: Safety is perilous, and difficulty is strengthening.

    *Some details have been changed.

    How to Keep Your Team Focused and Productive During Uncertain Times

    Uncertainty is uncomfortable for everyone. Whether it’s political turmoil or a reorganisation at your company, employees who are concerned about their future are likely to be distracted and unproductive. What should a manager do? How can you keep people focused while also helping them cope with the feelings that change and ambiguity bring up?

    What the Experts Say
    Most of us feel overwhelmed, upset, and anxious when faced with uncertainty. “We have a fundamental neuroanatomy that orients us toward stress in highly charged times,” explains Rich Fernandez, cofounder of Wisdom Labs and an expert in resilience. And this can start an unhealthy cycle: “A symptom of distraction is more distraction. Then we feel more anxious,” says Susan David, a founder of the Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital and author of Emotional Agility. On a team, these feelings, and the resulting hit to productivity, can be contagious. “We subtly pick up on the emotions and start to feel or mimic them ourselves,” she explains. To help people stay focused despite what may be going on in the world or the office, Fernandez believes in “compassionate management,” where you “seek to understand how you can be of service and benefit to employees while balancing the need to keep them on task.” Here are practical ways to do that.

    Take care of yourself first
    You’ll be better able to support your team and model resiliency if you acknowledge and manage any stress and anxiety you feel yourself. Start by taking the time to understand what you’re feeling. “You want to label your emotions. Put distance between yourself and them so that you can make a conscious decision about how to act in a way that’s in line with your values,” David says. Ask yourself: Whom do I want to be in this situation? What’s most important to me? “If one of your core values is to be collaborative, for example, ask, ‘How can you help people feel like they’re part of the team?’”

    Acknowledge the uncertainty
    If you sense your employees are concerned about the future of the country, your organisation, or their jobs, don’t carry on with business as usual. “These experiences are very real and can’t be ignored, denied, or repressed,” says Fernandez. Even if your intention is to keep people focused, bottling your emotions, or expecting employees to do the same, can be dangerous. People start to feel uncomfortable voicing their feelings or concerns, and “you start to get a rebound effect,” says David. Instead, directly address the issue. You might acknowledge that things seem chaotic and unpredictable at the moment. At the same time, you only want to commiserate up to a point — you should avoid “brooding,” where you get stuck in a negative spiral. Acknowledge how people are feeling, but then “move on to talk about how you want to act as a team,” she says.

    Encourage self-compassion
    Some of your team members may be looking around and wondering how their colleagues are keeping it together while they’re losing sleep and unable to be productive. Encourage them to have some self-compassion and acknowledge that stress is a normal, physiological response to feeling out of control or threatened. “Help staff recognize that change can bring about a lack of agency,” says David, which can send our brains and bodies into overdrive. If you’re feeling stressed, admit it, or talk about previous situations in which you’ve felt anxiety, so they know they’re not alone.

    Ask people what they need
    Talk with employees one-on-one and let them describe what they’re going through. Do some “perspective-taking by putting yourself in their shoes,” says Fernandez. You want to “truly understand what they think and feel, even if you don’t agree or feel the same thing.” This empathy forms the basis of trust so that you can move into problem-solving mode. Fernandez suggests saying, “It seems like a tough time. What would be most helpful at the moment? Let’s think about it together, because I want to help and make sure you can get your work done.” Maybe they need some extra guidance on how to reduce distractions, advice on prioritizing their work, or increased flexibility.

    Focus on what you do control
    Research has shown that even small rituals can reduce stress and improve performance, as can incremental progress toward clearly defined goals. You might also give people more flexibility in dictating their work schedule, so long as you “encourage them to plan in advance and make an agreement that the performance expectations remain the same,” Fernandez says. David recommends returning to values as well. Even when “a lot of power and choices are being taken away, you still get to choose whom you want to be,” she explains. So help employees clarify what’s important to them. You can do this with the whole team by asking, “How do we want to act during these times? How do we want to treat one another?” Members might agree that they want to continue delivering a quality product to your clients while being respectful and kind to one another, for example. “It helps a team stay grounded when you reassert and reaffirm a shared sense of purpose,” says David.

    Encourage and model self-care
    Sleep, exercise, and good nutrition are proven stress killers and productivity enhancers. So encourage your team members to take care of themselves, says David. For example, if an employee tells you she’s taking her phone to bed to read work emails or the news, you might suggest she leave it in another room. If you see people checking Twitter or gossiping about a reorganisation during lunch breaks, you might invite them to go out for a walk instead. It’s not a manager’s place to dictate these behaviors, but it’s OK to give advice, especially based on your experience and what’s worked for you. Mindful breathing helps to calm anxiety and increase focus, Fernandez says. Although it may seem awkward to remind your staff to inhale and exhale, you can share the research on its benefits.


    Principles to Remember


    • Normalize stress — it’s a common physiological response to uncertainty

    • Increase employees’ sense of control over their actions and work schedule

    • Encourage people to take care of themselves by getting sleep, exercising, and eating well


    • Neglect your own anxiety and concerns

    • Ignore people’s emotions

    • Let the uncertainty be an excuse for not getting work done


    Case Study #1: Talk about concerns openly and give people flexibility

    Building up to and following the U.S. elections, Jan Bruce, cofounder and CEO of meQuilibrium, a digital coaching platform that helps people be more resilient, watched as the level of worry increased among many of her 41 employees. “People were talking about it and expressing concerns,” she says. Some were anxious about personal issues, such as the ability to pay back their student loans or renew their visas. Others were worried about the company and how policy changes would affect its ability to recruit from abroad. “It has certainly been a tense atmosphere,” she says. “People don’t like uncertainty. We’re wired to scan for potentially negative and scary outcomes, so it makes sense.”

    Given her company’s focus, Jan knew what she needed to do. First, she made sure that people felt comfortable talking about what they were experiencing. “We set an overall tone, even prior to the election, that it was acceptable and encouraged to talk about politics in the office,” she says. Employees were able to “acknowledge what they were feeling, address it with their colleagues, and then move on to getting work done.”

    Since people were able to express their worries, Jan and other managers at meQuilibrium could help strategize how to address them. “I see that fears often get magnified and people tend to blow up the numbers. They might say that we’re not going to be able to hire anyone because of the changes around foreign visas, but only 5% of our hires have visas,” she says. They talked openly about the risks to the business. “We didn’t sweep the concerns under the rug, even if the outcomes were usually less instantaneous or drastic than they feared.” With the issues on the table, they could move into problem-solving mode and talk about how they should guard against those risks.

    Many staff members got more involved in politics after the election, and Jan made sure they had the control over their schedules to do so. “A few weeks ago we found people were leaving the office to go to demonstrations or marches. To us, that’s the same as going out for a dentist appointment. We’re not endorsing any political stance — we’re just giving employees the freedom to do what’s important to them.”

    While Jan says that this may be a particularly tumultuous time in U.S. politics, her approach is not unique to this moment: “Transparency, social support, and flexibility are part of our values, no matter what’s going on in the world.”


    Case Study #2: Provide a sense of hope

    Naomi Hardy was the regional HR manager at an energy company during a merger of nine different entities. It was a stressful time for most employees, but there was one person in particular, a geologist, who was struggling with the tumult of the reorganization. “He was going over budget on project, time and time again,” she says. Because he’d been a strong performer in the past, “senior management was puzzled and the employee was distraught.”

    When Naomi started talking with him, she discovered that “the changes going on in the workplace, the uncertainty, and the constant rumors were causing him anxiety.” As a result, “he’d lost focus, and what normally took him one hour to complete began to take him four or six hours to complete. He just couldn’t concentrate.”

    Naomi worked with the geologist to focus on what was in his control. She reminded him that no matter what happened at the company, he had unique strengths and an impressive list of accomplishments. She coached him to “advance and learn during these times and make himself valuable whether or not he was laid off,” and even encouraged him to identify competitors “that would be happy to have him on their team, should the need arise.” At the same time, she emphasized the importance of managing his projects more effectively and meeting his clients’ needs.

    Her efforts to increase his sense of agency and hope paid off. He got back on track with his project deadlines and budget, and “he was able to see a future, regardless of the future of the company,” she says. Although he was ultimately let go, he quickly found a job with a competitor.


    Becoming an Agent of Change

    Given that our name is Agents of Change we often get asked what it takes to be one. 

    Agents of Change reveal themselves in many ways: some are loud, shouty and obvious and others are quiet and stealth-like. Regardless of their style, change is always the result. 

    So how do unleash the Agent of Change in you?


    Agents of Change are very clear about the future they see and articulate it in a way that brings that vision to life for others. Martin Luther King didn’t say ‘I have a strategy’, he said ‘I have a dream’ and then went on to describe, using visual language, what that world would look like. In doing so, that vision of the future took life in the minds of others.

    In 'Man's search for Meaning' Viktor Frankl describes the rapid decline of fellow inmates in the Nazi Concentration Camps when they lost their reason for living. If you are absolute clear WHY you are doing something, that purpose is a source of energy and motivation; it will enable you to dig deep when you need to.


    Change is hard and frequently takes much longer than we expect. Tenacity is like focus and commitment amplified, giving you the resolve to keep going when others might be flagging. Of course in order to maintain your energy, you need to know what fuels and restores it.


    How frequently do we hear contestants on Master Chef or Bake Off tell us that it's their passion for food that drives them. Emotion is hugely important in driving our behaviour, so Agents of Change fall in love with the change they are seeking. And their passion is infectious, inspiring others to join their cause.


    Agents of Change are well connected. They invest in relationships before they 'need' them, forming strong bonds with people. And that means they can be assured that help is always at hand.


    The ability to articulate a strong, well conceived case for change is a core skill of an Agent of Change. You have to be able to see all sides of the idea and adapt your communication to the differing needs of those around you to convince them, hearts and minds, to join you.

    No one of these skills on its own is enough. Tenacity without Influence, for example, can just be over bearing! It's the balance of these attributes that creates an Agent of Change.

    • So if you were to score yourself out of 10 (0 = low, 10 = high), how do you measure up?
    • What could you do to up your scores by one or two in each category?