Time to reflect: a necessity for L&D success, not a luxury

Tangible outcomes are important in business; though depending on the outcomes at stake, it’s not always easy to tell whether they’ve been reached. You probably wouldn’t let it slide if your facilities management company came out to a broken lift, and the lift stayed broken for months. So, what about your Learning and Development provider? How would you know if things had changed as a result of their visit?

It’s an important question and one that we urge you to consider. This blog is the third and final in a series exploring how organisations can ensure that the programmes they undertake deliver real change and genuine development. However, the outcomes, aren’t wholly on your supplier’s shoulders. For results to truly emerge, organisations and the people that lead them must take responsibility for their own outcomes. A moment to stop, breathe and reflect is one of the most effective ways to do that.

Along with a growing state of consciousness and the right place for development, reflective experience is the third leg of the tripod that upholds the work we do. Because without reflection, it’s not possible to truly develop leaders.

The misconception about the value of Learning and Development

In a consumer culture, the more ‘stuff’ we can get for our money, the better the perceived value. Supermarkets, price-matching deals, and comparison sites condition us to expect that more is always better.

In the world of Learning and Development, the opposite is true. In this context, more content rammed into a programme doesn’t equal better value. As humans we can only learn so much; genuine development is where true value is derived. In practical terms that means programmes which have room to breathe and which allow participants to do the same. It’s not a case of simply filling the wineglass to its brim, but of making the wine glass bigger so that it can comfortably hold its contents – enhancing our capacity, rather than pushing it to its limits.

So how can organisations be sure that a programme will have breathing space, and that their leaders will have the best chance of developing? Genuine development comes when we take the time to pause and think. Programmes need less content and more space for reflection.

How to genuinely develop; the importance of reflection

Genuine development doesn’t happen overnight, it takes skill, patience and practise. There are certain elements that are vital to developing a strong reflective habit and key markers on the journey:

A space to practise

The right physical and psychological space is crucial to the success of a programme; time to reflect is another kind of space. Any kind of development work must be practical – theory alone is a starting point and won’t deliver change. A skilled L&D provider creates a space to reflect, they help to bring the theory to life by encouraging the delegate to test how it works in real life. It’s a bit like buying a new rain jacket. You can read about the features, understand how it’s made, and why it keeps you dry. What you need to do is put the coat on, walk around, pull your hood up, and put your hands in the pockets. It’s not enough to imagine how it’ll work in your everyday life, you have to get a feel for it. A programme creates an opportunity to try on the theory and rehearse for reality.

Getting comfortable with pausing

Leaders who are constantly on the go often find that stopping feels like doing nothing. For busy people this is initially an uncomfortable notion. A provider walks with you as you explore the different levels of reflection and the benefits:

Stage 1: Review: look back after the event at what you did and said. We meet leaders in our work who are so busy that they rarely find an opportunity to do this. By walking these first few steps into the world of reflection with leaders, they can understand the value for themselves and benefit from the support of an external provider as questions or challenges arise.

Stage 2: Consider: take time after the event to think about what you did well, what you didn’t do so well, what worked and what didn’t work.

Stage 3: Look ahead: what could you do differently next time? How might you implement this? At this point leaders are encouraged to walk through future scenarios in light of first-hand experience. This is where reflective practice starts to accelerate.

Stage 4: Reflect in the moment: moving up a gear now to more advanced reflective skills. During a situation or conversation, notice what you’re doing, saying and feeling at that time.

Stage 5: Make a change in the moment: pause. Take a breath and notice what you’re saying or doing and how this is impacting on your feelings and the situation. Make a change to that. What’s the impact on your own feelings or the dynamic?

As you become more and more adept at each stage, the process will feel more comfortable. And while reflection is always an explorative practice – rather than territory that can be ‘conquered’ – it will feel more natural with use.

Understanding how the human brain works

The fight or flight response causes us to react in the heat of the moment. Though it may feel like it, we are not alone in the fact that we respond emotionally: it’s what has enabled us to survive, as this factsheet explains. Noticing is powerful in its ability to divert our knee-jerk reaction. By pausing and acknowledging what we feel, we can use this information and work with our emotional responses instead of against them. 

The nuance of reflection

Over time reflection becomes easier and easier to work with, like a muscle that’s trained to respond. And when you’re consciously working to make behavioural changes, frequent reflection hones your awareness of where you are currently – and where you’re going.

Reflection helps behavioural shifts to take place. By thinking about what you do well and what you do effectively, it’s easier to do more of this. Focusing on the positive, the areas in which you excel, is easier than trying to ‘scrub out’ less helpful behaviours or patterns. And by turning your attention to what you do well, you’ll naturally do more of that.

How to reflect: find a method that works for you

When we work with clients, we don’t champion any one single method of reflection. We introduce clients to a range of techniques: it’s up to them to decide what they like and continue with after the programme. The most important thing, the thing that will deliver real change and therefore value, is that reflection happens during the programme time. The onus should never solely be on the participants to reflect in their own time – though that may be helpful too.

A provider worth their salt will take content out of a programme to let it breathe. They’ll walk through the discomfort of ‘doing nothing’ apart from talking or thinking with clients. Why? Because if leaders, managers, individuals or teams are to truly develop then they must stop and think. Without this, the value that any L&D programme offers is seriously compromised.

The business impact of reflection

Reflection, either as part of a programme or after the provider has departed, is not simply a box-ticking exercise. Reflection encourages individuals to be more self-aware and to take on board the learnings and things noticed during the L&D experience. Reflection, then, supports a growing self-awareness. In turn, place supports reflection; it is far easier to reflect somewhere away from distraction, at least in the initial stages.

So, the impact on the individual is clear. What about the wider organisation? The commercial impact is two-fold:

  • Organisations are more likely to achieve the business’ desired outcomes if the programme has the breathing space created by reflective experience. Time to explore behaviours and the current situation sharpens the mind to the desired goals more than a packed schedule does.
  • When leaders have permission to stop and reflect on their impact on the business, they can make different choices – which lead to better outcomes. By cultivating this level of awareness and constantly modifying behaviour, choices and management style, leaders are able to fulfil their role more effectively. And that means that organisations are getting the best output from one of their most valuable assets.

Reflection: critical to development and value

When your calendar is overflowing, when meetings are back to back and your phone doesn’t stop buzzing, a moment to think feels like an extravagant luxury. Time and again, we have found the opposite to be true. Self-awareness and the right place are crucial ingredients which contribute to the success of L&D programmes, as does reflection. They are each important in their own right, yet their power lies in their combined use.

And so, we challenge you over the next week to experiment with reflection. Take some time to notice, either at day’s end, in a meeting, or on the phone. Tune in to what’s going on, what you might change, or what you did well. What do you observe? Let us know what you discover and if you need some help, we’re on 0117 370 1800. We’d welcome the opportunity of a conversation.

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