How to Effectively Practice Reflection in the Workplace

Young man reflecting at work

We live in a world where it’s become increasingly more difficult to tune out and have a little time to think and reflect. Reaching for our phones and scrolling down endless social media feeds seems almost automatic.

This zombie-like behaviour holds true for the workplace, too. We go to the office, clock in eight hours and go home without truly thinking about where our careers are headed. But not taking the time to reflect on our work can lead to disastrous results, including missed opportunities and wasted time on a job we don’t really like or even care about.

So, if you’ve been on autopilot these past few months with no clear idea on which direction to take, then perhaps it’s time to practice reflection and help yourself advance in the workplace.

1. The Socratic Method

Reflection is universally regarded as a personal and solitary process. After all, it comes from the Latin word reflectere which means ‘to bend’ or ‘to turn back on self’. Yet ancient Greeks believed that reflection is best done through dialogue, preferably with a trusted teacher or a close mentor.

Socrates, an ancient Greek scholar who founded this method of reflection, strongly believed in the importance of talking or debating about personal thoughts and feelings, hence his famous line, ‘an unexamined life is a life not worth living.’

Implementing this method to your working life can be extremely useful, especially if you have valid, but opposing views to your colleagues. Let’s say, that you’re working on a marketing campaign, but you disagree with the method your supervisor has suggested. Instead of quietly nodding along with what they are saying. You should discuss your opinion openly and freely – although it may be uncomfortable, to begin with, you will have a much more productive meeting and a better outcome at the end of it.

2. John Dewey Model

The American philosopher and psychologist Dewey, strongly believe that reflection shouldn’t be a passive moment, rather it’s a crucial and active part of learning. His famous theory describes the process of recalling puzzling situations and posing questions to explore why things turned out the way they did, and what actions could have been taken to get a different outcome.

Despite having first talked about the importance of reflection in the early 90s, many of Dewey’s ideas are still being proven true until today. For example, a recent study done by Harvard found that reflection helps people retain information better and learn more effectively. In the research, participants were asked to go through a series of activities where they were asked to solve brain teasers, first as individuals and then into groups. The researchers found that the groups who were allowed to reflect and share what they learned from the first round of problem-solving performed an average of 18% better in the second round than the group that didn’t. 

To employ this method in the workplace, rather than mindlessly completing every task as instructed, you could find ways to improve your work and update the current process. For instance, if the company you work for still uses leaflets to promote their services, then maybe you should try sharing what you know about digital marketing. Encourage them to create a business website or help them build a social media presence. By actively thinking about your work and taking the initiative to create positive changes, not only do you help the company, you also help yourself by showcasing your potential as a future leader.

3. Kolb’s Experiential Learning

Apart from Dewey, another staunch proponent of reflection is American educational theorist David Kolb. In 1984, Kolb developed his own learning cycle which included what he believed to be the four elements of experiential learning. These were:

  • experience: doing or going through something
  • observations and reflections: looking back and thinking deeply about your experience
  • development of ideas: thinking of ways on how you can do better based on your observations and reflections
  • testing ideas in practice: applying your ideas in real life.

To put this into work terms, let’s say you submitted a logo design but your creative director rejected your piece. Instead of getting frustrated, you think about why your design was denied and work on it further, then apply the changes you think will improve your current logo and submit it again.

The Kolb method allows you to become more conscious of what you can do better by reflecting on your experience rather than blindly letting your emotions get the best of you.

4. Gibbs Reflective Cycle

Four years after the Kolb Cycle was introduced, another educator, Professor Graham Gibbs also created his own method for reflection called the Gibbs Reflective Cycle. Gibbs expanded on Kolb’s teachings and included two more stages for reflection which are, evaluating how the experience made you feel and making sense of the situation.

Unlike the Socratic Method which only proposes constant dialogue, Gibbs reflective cycle strongly encourages deep introspection through writing. To apply this method at work, consider having a journal where you can log all your thoughts and emotions throughout the day. Then at night time or before you go to sleep, look back on how you felt that day and try to figure out what really upset you and what made you happy.

Whether it’s getting mad at a colleague for eating your lunch or feeling disappointed in yourself for not speaking up during a meeting – knowing the reasons behind your emotional and mental state can help definitely improve your performance your profession.

5. Schön's Model

Donald Schön is also one of the most popular teachers of reflection. His model teaches us that reflection always works in two ways; these are reflection-in-action and reflection-on-action.

Simply put, reflection in action is essentially ‘thinking on your feet’. For example, imagine you’re listening to your boss talk about sales strategies but you can't concentrate because of colleague chewing loudly. You immediately move seats to be farther away from your colleague, so you can listen better.

Using the same situation, reflection-on-action would be: you notice that your colleague’s loud chewing distracts you during sales meetings, so before the meeting starts, you choose a seat far away from that person. To further help you remember what was discussed, you bring a notebook to the meeting and take down notes.

Like Kolb and Gibbs, Schön believed that self-reflection is crucial to effective learning. Without it, a person won’t be able to fully understand and develop into becoming someone better.

To apply this model in your workplace, think of instances or experiences where you feel emotionally triggered. Are you overly sensitive when your boss gives you feedback? Do you feel resentful and angry when a colleague critiques your work? It doesn’t matter whether your emotions are anger, sadness or disappointment. What’s important is you make it a daily habit to reflect on your work so that you know which situations trigger you and how you’ll be able to handle them better in the future.

It’s easy to overlook our feelings towards our careers when we spend our work-week counting down until Friday. But the reality is, we spend a third of our lives in our jobs and if we don’t take the time to reflect on what we do and why we do it, then that’s definitely – to quote Socrates – ‘a life not worth living.’

Do you take time to reflect on your work? Let us know in the comments below.