Jump to section
Don’t look back, you’re not going that way.
This simpler version of an earlier Thoreau quote might be useful navigational advice in certain life situations. But it is not how we effectively grow forward.
In fact, looking back on past behaviors, reactions, conditions, and outcomes is a powerful practice. It creates awareness that can lead to meaningful and sustainable change. It is especially powerful when we do it with a curious willingness to analyze, understand, and learn.
Unfortunately, in today’s fast-forward, full-steam, fail-fast environments, we often don't look back. Too often, we forget, don't make time, or aren't interested in looking back, for any reason. Instead, we lunge forward.
What is reflection?
Reflection is a conscious and intentional practice of objective self-examination. We have to be willing to pause and take a critical look back. We look with an eye for self-improvement, recognition, or development opportunities. Reflection is neither positive nor negative, instead, it is, as the term suggests, the process of purposefully looking back. Ideally, the process itself will inform us of what went well, or what we could have done differently.
Importantly, reflection is oriented toward forward growth.
What are the benefits of reflection?
Reflection can raise self-awareness and bolster self-confidence. It can reveal truths, including about our talents and shortcomings. Reflection serves to expose the behaviors that have an impact on our outcomes. It is what we do with these insights that create the power of the practice.
Curiously, for such a useful practice, the reflection process is not something we know how to do intuitively. It isn't part of most academic or job training. In today’s frenetic environments, our focus pulls toward what to do next, or how to do more. Shaped by always-on work cultures, we believe there’s no time to pause, let alone reflect. Most of us don't learn about the power of reflection until someone else, often a coach or mentor, guides us through the interrogative process.
How reflection works, a story
Let’s consider a common scenario to take a brief look at how effective reflection can be, what it looks like, and possible pitfalls to avoid.
We all have those pivotal workplace discussions. There are the ones we schedule and prepare for, and the unscripted variety that occur without notice. Most people believe they are self-aware (more on that later) and so able to regulate their emotions, buttons, and triggers in a given situation. So we take part in our workplace conversation, and maybe there are some rough spots, but we land a few strong statements and move on. A few days pass, and we encounter another bumpy discussion, with a different whiny team member. We move forward wondering why other people can’t see things from our perspective.
When it’s time for our quarterly development conversation with the boss, we get some frustrating feedback: not a team player, difficult to work with, argumentative. Of course, we nod knowingly while also expressing surprise, concern, even contrition. We agree to work on and improve these behaviors immediately.
After that uncomfortable meeting, we blow off steam, briefly wonder about who the complainers are, then get back to work. The quality of our work product speaks volumes, we're sure, so we quickly move on.
Time passes — everyone is always busy — a few timelines slip, no big deal, performance pressure is high, but it always is. There are way too many meetings, even project debrief sessions, but we skip most of them; there’s real work that needs to get done. Finally, a senior-level position, with a nice pay increase, gets approved and posted. We go for it, confident that we are the best choice.
The interview process is weird: situational questions that have nothing to do with the role, a presentation that doesn't highlight job skills, selection by a panel. We do our best and play along (with only a few eye rolls), confident that we are the obvious choice. It's just HR, overcomplicating the process to be fair, we rationalize.
We don't get the promotion. Frustrated and angry, we spend the rest of the day surfing job boards. Sound familiar? Recognize yourself in any part of this story?
This scenario illustrates how low self-awareness, inflated self-worth, and misaligned work priorities can sabotage our goals. It is full of opportunities where reflection could have created a positive change, and likely, improved outcomes. The quarterly review with the boss is the most obvious example, but the openings for reflection punctuate the whole story.
Remember, reflection is an intentional pause to review our actions, with a willingness to objectively analyze our own behavior, and potentially learn from missteps. In this scenario, every interaction, and even our overarching attitude, might have altered outcomes. We develop or increase our self-awareness as a direct by-product of the reflection process when we are also willing to learn, grow, and change.
What reflection is not
Before jumping into reflective self-analysis, it is also important to understand what reflection is not. Reflection isn't about beating yourself up or getting stuck in the past. You are not always wrong or bad — some of your behaviors and attitudes could be out of alignment or at cross purposes to your goals or values.
We can’t turn back time, or erase a negative conversation or outcome. Yet, we can learn from those instances and change our behaviors moving forward. While a routine practice of reflection will increase our self-awareness, it is also a gradual, iterative process. Sustainable change requires both time and effort.
How to grow forward
Reflection is not something we automatically know how to do, but we get better with practice. There are different modes of reflection — individual, paired, group — that can yield different insights. Partner with a coach or mentor to better understand how the practice looks and feels the first few times. It is hard to see yourself. Until you develop the skill, it can be helpful to have an objective outsider reflecting your behaviors, goals, and attitudes back to you.
Commit to a developmental strategy that includes a willingness to look back, learn, change, and grow forward. Before you know it, you will recognize, and like, who you see in that reflection.
BetterUp Fellow Coach & PCC