By Katarina Billing, MiL Institute
Why Reflection is Needed So Badly and Why it is So Scarce in Supply
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Sculpture of Confucius by Zhang Huan at the Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai. In the “Q Confucius”-exhibition the artist raised questions like “What does it mean to live in a Confucian way today?”. One of Confucius sayings was for example: “A good horse is praised not for its strength but for its virtue.”
The other day I was talking to the regional Asia-Pacific-HR- Manager of a major global company here in Shanghai. The picture he painted of the state of the organization was a grim one with a large management team meeting very seldom, with little trust in the team and no chance of support and empowerment and at the same time huge business challenges, barrier breaking goals and KPI:s in focus. A picture of an organization with high retention and a sense of frustration and severe stress among the employees, feelings of solitude, absent management and lack of talents wanting to take on larger responsibilities further down in the organisation. Business results: inadequate quality, loss of speed and innovative new business practices and solutions in short supply. In the long run, loss of direction, competitiveness and money.
—We really believe in reflection, but to tell you the truth I have very little time and resources ever working with it or promoting it,
the HR manager confessed .
We all keep running
This scenario is by no means exclusive neither for this company, for this industry, for China nor for any other part of the world. I hear it over and over again, from Danish, American, Swedish, French, Swiss, Chinese companies etc. And in all kinds of segments: social media, manufacturing, retail, distribution, banking, telecom etc. The tale of the short-term focus, business as usual, action oriented, result- and KPI-driven approach. Most of us in business know the drill. We are awarded for being complacent and playing by the rules. Although we are convinced of the power of trust building, involvement, humanistic values and reflection as means to increase listening, learning and future creative solutions. We tend to go on running.
A quest for resilience
I think it is time to start focusing more on resilience. It refers to the idea of an individual's tendency to cope with stress and adversity. Many of the employees in the organisations I meet are stressed and one way of coping with it is shutting off and finding individual motivation when few alternatives exist due to lack of value based leadership, engaging visions and sound values being lived (and not only stated) in their respective companies on a day-to-day basis. Adding to that the multitude of information, the constant expectation and need to be “logged on” at all times and the matrix organisations where a confusion of loyalty often pervades leaves the concept of resilience and people practising it quite abandoned.
How to become resilient?
Some teams and organisations have the energy and faith though. I worked with a large Chinese organization some time ago. Their management school wanted to learn more about Action Reflection Learning, ARL ®, i.e. the MiL Institute learning philosophy and how to apply it in their business.
Concepts in ARL®
(shutting out all irrelevant stimuli and focusing on the here and now), Connection
(building trust and respect between us), Holistic involvement
(seeing the team participants as persons not as roles, further not as a means but as ends in itself), Guided reflection
(stopping to think, feel and share in order to learn for continuous improvement and increased life meaning) and Feedback
(supporting the reflection as a means to create fresh air and breathing within a system) suddenly came alive and started to spin its threads tightening the team together. The team did not at any time leave their task but instead worked consistently with their goals and missions through ARL®
This was a rewarding and energizing experience and the team is now busy living the ARL®
philosophy in their development efforts within their organization but also in their own team life on a daily basis.
—We are now co-creating more. I have learnt to listen better and to increase my patience. And my co-workers show higher degrees of confidence, involvement and trust
, the manager testifies happily.
This example shows some of the ways to build resilience, all of them thoroughly supported in psychological research. The ARL®
philosophy supplies the organisation with a method and tools to make it happen.
Why do we resist practising reflection and building resilience?
Then why is it so difficult to “Just do it”? Two of the reasons are highlighted in the research on the negative social effects of excessive use of mobile phones that gets high attention in the media at the moment.
First of all, we are all psychological animals in need of social gratification, recognition and appreciation. Many of these needs are today satisfied through constant online access to e-mail, Facebook and other social network channels. Shutting them off (even for a short while) is perceived as a loss for the individual. It is consequently hard for an employer (or any other outside stimuli the report shows) to compete with these. Secondly this behaviour also fosters a lack of impulse control, i.e. we are used to getting what we want instantly, e.g. contact with our friends, a pair of new shoes through online shopping etc.
How can a manager “sell” reflection?
The list of explanations could become much longer. But if we look at only these two factors it is not hard to see why an employee from a work environment with low support, energy and involvement (like the one mentioned first in this text) could have some resistance to entering into a development process of any kind, say for instance of team development through ARL ®, working with connection and reflection. This need is already taken care of somewhere else and the organisation already has showed low credibility here.
As for the managers — “selling it”
needs commitment and trust, something that is not present at the first place. Secondly, this development effort will reduce the speed not only of the work being done, since reflection takes some time at first (but is shown to improve results and speed long term) but also will be felt quite vividly in the room as a slow way of working (requiring attentive listening for example). Research has shown that stressed people are like drug addicts (Drugs, Stress Cause Similar Brain Changes
– Malenka, R, Neuron, Feb 2003). Speed is like cocaine to them. If you take away speed you need to be able to sustain the individual with something else. To achieve this, MiL Institute
often uses powerful tools coming close by tapping on emotions and relationships ensuring the involvement of each individual. But since we are also talking about a change process, altering people’s behaviour and ultimately the team/organisational culture, it also requires some time. Because as the dictionary Wikipedia accurately states:
“Resilience is most commonly understood as a process, and not a trait of an individual”
It is something we do together and in a reflected process over time. Time, neither of us has, right?
Reflection is indeed an endangered species in today’s business world. And it is certainly initially a slow and time-consuming companion. But hey, do you know of any other salvation? I am all ears.
Katarina Billing, MiL Institute
Certified psychologist, journalist, MiL Senior Partner and co-author to several books, among others: Earning while learning in global leadership. Heads the MiL research foundation and has the last four years been the programme director for the MiL programme for experienced managers. Is passionate about art and personal leadership. Responsible MiL China.