Reflection at work

When I meet other Chief Executives and say “How are you?” I often get a big sigh and a “Busy!!!” in response. We pride ourselves on earning our high salaries and using every minute. We organise breakfast meetings, Lunch & Learns, discussions over dinner, away days, Saturday morning surgeries, Family Fun days – so many activities to evidence our commitment and to prove that we, personally, have to be there at all times, to keep the show on the road.

I like being busy but I don’t want to be run off my feet.

If things are “manic”, “bonkers” or “crazy” at work this is not a badge of pride but a failure of leadership. Working in a manic environment will soon make us feel manic, burnt out, stressed and unable to function. When those crazy days come along, and I find myself jogging to the tube and reading papers on the way to meetings, I start to fray at the edges. My poor assistant will spend the next day or two phoning venues where I have left my coat, or having to text me at home to remind me to do something before coming to work the next morning.

In truth I thrive when I have a little bit of time to think things through. I believe this is what I am paid for, rather than my ability to juggle, jog and jettison. These days I find it quite easy to make the time to think as I have got really good at delegating and this is something we have adopted very consciously at Notting Hill Housing.

As well as delegation we have, as the leadership team, worked hard on our ability to reflect on our feelings and to try to understand what is happening, at an emotional level, in our organisation. A few years ago we set about consciously learning from our experience, so reflection has become a key part of our culture and our success.  I will spend the next three posts elaborating what I mean by reflection at work

  • For the individual
  • For our relationships with others
  • For teams

The reflective individual

Let us start with the individual, and I will use myself as an example.

I try to be self aware – although it absolutely didn’t come naturally to me. My parents had never shown much self awareness and I was brought up to be fairly confident and not that concerned about the impact I had on others. If people disliked me I wasn’t really bothered – I had enough friends, low levels of anxiety and a happy life. I dealt with negative feedback (if I even registered it – I am not the world’s most sensitive person) by thinking “what’s their problem?” Blaming others is always a first line of defence! This absolved me from really thinking about what I might have said or done differently to achieve a different outcome.

More recently, and as a result of bitter experience, I have learnt to value self awareness and I have had some help on this. As I have learnt more about my behaviour and feelings, and why certain things keep on happening, I have also learnt how to make changes. Changing our own approaches or thoughts are some of the most difficult changes to make - because much of our behaviour has been baked into our personality over many years. But when we become more sensitive to our own feelings and behaviour, identifying triggers that make us react inappropriately, we can eventually learn how to manage and control them. Getting help and support from someone we trust, who is skilled in observation and giving feedback, can make all the difference to people who have cut themselves off from their internal life. After all, understanding how others see us often requires us to listen to feedback. This needs to be done skilfully – if someone makes blunt critical remarks it can hurt or lead us to react badly. Denial is a term that we generally understand to be an attempt to protect ourselves from this kind of unwelcome feedback.

One thing I have learnt about myself is that I hate to be rejected. The reason why I hate rejection, perhaps more than the next person, is probably to do with a range of very early experiences. I may well have forgotten the actual instances that made me feel frightened and alone as a little, vulnerable kid.  But the feelings remain. When I am turned down for a role I have a terrible sense of injustice and feel slighted. I protect myself by thinking “how come they preferred her to me – the idiots,” or “well I thought they were tossers, especially the chairman!” I find it hard to be rational – e.g. they chose someone who was more suitable for the role. My reaction is disproportionate, and to some extent the feelings associated with being rejected are connected to something that happened a long time ago. Rather than getting angry or upset it helps when I can understand the cause of those strong, unbearable feelings associated with rejection, which are fundamental and longstanding feelings for me.

How do you become more reflective? Well, a coach or consultant can often help you to realise how you come across, what makes you feel angry or out of control and can help you learn to react differently (i.e. change your behaviour).  Reflection at work helps you to make sense of your own behaviour by looking beyond the obvious to the underlying causes of your feelings and behaviour.

The reflective leader

At one event I received feedback that “I looked like a woman but behaved like a man”. I was pretty surprised by this (uninvited) personal remark. But I have thought about it. Being good at reflection means we have to look beyond the obvious.

While I strongly believe that “masculine” and “feminine” behaviour is not only politically challengeable, and I could have got huffy about the insult, I spent some time thinking about how I am perceived.

I am a woman in a powerful and important role. I like being “in charge” and able. I am not overly sensitive and I like to get things done. But maybe, in the way that I appear to others I come across as insensitive, uncaring or unapproachable. I believe I am compassionate but maybe I wasn’t communicating this aspect of my personality. I know I have sometimes “jumped” on people who say something I disagree with and this can be fairly scary if you lack confidence. I have learnt (in my 50s!) to tone it down a bit, to listen more actively and to let others take the lead from time to time.

When I have a quiet time at work I do reflect on how I come across and I try to work out techniques which may be more effective than the tried and tested methods I have used for decades. Then I resolve to do a better job at listening, or behaving in a meeting, for example, so that others can contribute.  And I try to express my views in a more nuanced way rather than just asserting my opinion.  I am not saying this is more “feminine” behaviour but it is possible that it may be perceived like that. I don’t really want to be “masculine” or “feminine” but effective. Effective reflection leads to greater self knowledge that allows me to try different approaches, dropping some old habits and less effective strategies.

If this makes sense to you then I would love to hear your story. If you think it is dubious please also give me your feedback. Comment below or tweet me @KateDaviesNHHT.

Kate Davies
Kate Davies

After obtaining a Master’s degree in Sociology, Kate Davies got her first job in Housing by chance. She embraced the opportunity it gave her to make a difference to people’s lives. In this stimulating milieu and while acquiring further qualifications, Kate’s career quickly progressed. She has now held management positions for over 30 years in both Housing Associations and Local Authorities. During that time, the nature of her role as leader has changed. The authoritative, handing-down management model of yesterday stopped working as the workforce became diverse, younger and more receptive to a consultative approach.