M.C. Escher

Making reflection a habit at work

To making meaningful work, and sustain it, some behaviors will need to become habits. Reflection is one such behavior that is all-too-often missing in our work lives. There are many reasons for this, such as, lack of time; focus on delivering over learning; behaviors that don’t align with the intent of ceremonies or inflection points in team work; open, noisy work spaces without enough privacy; and more.

In these situations, how can we make mental space and time for reflection? How can we sustain it over time? Put another way, can we consider reflection as a daily practice or habit in much the same way as musicians play daily scales and arpeggios to warm up for daily work?

Defining Reflection

Starting from the foundation, what is the definition of the word, “reflection?” A literal or physical definition is tangible:

Re·flec·tion — rəˈflekSH(ə)n/ — noun
The throwing back by a body or surface of light, heat, or sound without absorbing it.
Synonym: image, mirror image, likeness
“Her reflection in the pond vibrated with the ripples made by the wind.”

We see mirror images of ourselves every day. These images are part of how we visualize ourselves in the physical world. We also use our reflection in a mirror to check our makeup, make sure there’s no salad left in our teeth after lunch, fix our tie, and the like.

Another definition of reflection is more abstract:

Serious thought or consideration.
Synonyms: thought, thinking, consideration, contemplation, deliberation, pondering, meditation, musing, rumination, formal cogitation
“She doesn’t get much time for reflection.”

Using the physical definition as metaphor for the abstract sheds light on how “serious thought or consideration” is like a mirror for us to check our perspectives (another MMW practice). Like leaving salad in our teeth, when we don’t check our perspectives through reflection, we can make poor assumptions, behave badly, and even act in ways that may not align with our desired values.

Reflection as a Core Element

In “Practices to practice Make Meaningful Work,” Dan Szuc and Jo Wong outlined 8 best practices that help us “frame and answer the question of how to make meaningful work.” Dan and Jo also mentioned core elements, or behaviors, that support each of the practices, one of which is reflection. For example, the practice of allowing for multiple perspectives depends upon reflection. Without the time and practice for reflection, we may not consider why someone is behaving a certain way on our team. We might assume the cause is one thing but without taking the time to reflect on other causes, we will likely miss a perspective that might open our minds to feeling empathy for a team member. Put another way, reflection is so fundamental to individual and team behaviors and learning that we feel justified in calling it a core element of Making Meaningful Work.

Sparkle Sessions: Putting it into Practice

One way in which the Make Meaningful Work core team has been practicing reflection together is through “Sparkle Sessions.” We take turns interviewing each other, asking 5–6 key questions about an agreed-upon topic. Each of us gets a chance to play the role of interviewer and the one being interviewed. One person will take general notes. At the end of a conversation, each of us takes time to think about the interviews in that session. We then write up our individual notes to synthesize our reflections and share back with the core team. In this way, we’re practicing reflection until it becomes a habitual way in which we learn from each other.

Many people find formal techniques of reflection helpful, such as meditation and prayer. These are great practices and help us use reflection like a mirror to visualize something that will help us adapt. For example, on my commute to work, instead of listening to the news or a podcast or my favorite Spotify station, I try to allow for some silent time to reflect on my upcoming day. Like a mirror, I try to use the reflection time as a visualization of how my day could flow well. I visualize how I’ll be open to understanding others’ needs instead of reacting to perceived hurts that may not be intended.

If you’re just forming the habit of reflection or beginning to apply it to your daily work practices, here are some small ways that might be helpful in making reflection a daily habit:

  • Use your commute for quiet reflection on the upcoming day or on how your day went, as described above.
  • Use reflective listening, a form of reflection that allows for a way to help you look behind behaviors to understand the causes. For example, when your teenage daughter, visibly upset, comes to you and says, “I had an accident with the car,” instead of blowing up with anger, take a moment to respond to what she’s actually saying and what they need from you. (With 3 grown and almost-grown daughters, this has happened to me more than once!) You can respond reflectively by saying, “Oh! that must’ve been scary. Are you alright?” After demonstrating a reflective attitude, your teen will likely calm down enough to be able to talk sensibly with you about what happened, what the consequences might be, and how you’ll work together to get through it.
  • If you’re a people manager, use some practiced responses to give yourself time to reflect. For example, if you’re not sure in the moment of how to react to a behavior from someone, it’s ok to give yourself time to reflect by saying things like, “I’m not sure what to think about that right now. I need to process it.” Practice statements like these with a trusted friend or colleague in a role-playing activity. Having practiced statements on hand can help you in a moment of stress or crisis.
  • Take a few minutes at the end of each day to write or audio record your thoughts about the day. This is often difficult to fit in. If you can, though, it may provide you with a needed pause to frame your thoughts and create closure for the day.

We would love to learn more about how you, dear reader, use reflection in your work context.

If you find it helpful, use these questions as prompts:

  1. How do you add reflection to your day? What, if any, benefits do you see?
  2. What was it like for you when you didn’t practice reflection?
  3. If you could change one thing about your work environment or conditions to enable reflection (for yourself or as a team), what would that be?