Why Reflection at Work Is Crucial for Project Management

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Leadership Is Language" by L. David Marquet. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What’s the importance of reflection at work? Does every project need time for regrouping?

Without deliberate time for reflection, you risk getting stuck with a bad decision or missing out on valuable insights for improvement. In your post-execution collaboration session, L. David Marquet’s book Leadership Is Language advises you to celebrate the completion of an experiment and encourages reflection.

We’ll discuss both of these actions in more depth.

Celebrate and Provide Closure

After your team has completed your experiment, regroup to celebrate. This gives team members a sense of progress that they won’t feel if they labor on indefinitely and makes them feel appreciated and engaged. Additionally, when tasks are done, it’s easier for workers to look back on them and reflect on their work more objectively. During this time of reflection at work, they can confront any mistakes they might have made and identify ways to improve in the future from a more detached perspective.

(Shortform note: Some psychologists argue that creating a sense of progress is the most important factor in boosting motivation among workers, trumping other factors that leaders often prioritize, such as tangible incentives or recognition. According to research, workers feel the happiest and say they have their best days when they make progress in their work. Conversely, they feel the worst when they experience setbacks. Beyond celebrating the execution of work, as Marquet recommends, consider also creating a culture in which you recognize small wins and show your team how their work is making an impact.)

To improve your team’s performance, Marquet suggests you reward behavior, such as effort or focus, rather than traits, like intelligence. Similarly, encourage your team members to reflect on their journeys over the course of the project, rather than just the outcomes of the project. This makes them more aware of the behaviors that led to the positive results and more likely to repeat them in the future.

(Shortform note: Praising behavior instead of intelligence not only makes workers more driven to repeat positive behaviors, but it also cultivates a growth mindset and makes them more resilient to failure. According to psychologist Carol Dweck, author of Mindset, people with growth mindsets believe they can strengthen their abilities with effort and seek out opportunities to improve, while people with fixed mindsets believe their abilities are unchangeable. Praise that centers on intellect or talent causes people to develop fixed mindsets and shrink from challenges because they associate success or failure not with effort but with ability—something they feel is out of their control.)

Promote Learning

According to Marquet, taking time to regroup and reflect allows your team to brainstorm ways to improve the next experiment. This is only possible, however, if everyone feels comfortable admitting their flaws or areas for improvement.

To encourage people to reflect on possible improvements, use language that:

Focuses on the future (not the past). Ask what could be done better rather than what was done wrong—“What did we learn that we can apply next time?”

Focuses on others (not the team). Ask your team what advice they would give others working on a similar project or task or to consider how to better serve customers’ needs.

Focuses on the action (not the person). Ask how the work could be improved rather than how the person could do the work better.

Additional Suggestions for Giving Feedback for Improvement

In How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie expands on Marquet’s suggestions on how to speak to encourage your team to grow and improve. While Marquet recommends gaining distance from the problem, Carnegie’s approach focuses more on appreciating what the person did well. Let’s look at how Carnegie’s advice compares to Marquet’s.

Language that focuses on the future. Carnegie provides an alternate approach to making future improvements: If you want someone to improve a certain skill set, you should treat them like it’s already one of their best traits. This encourages them to work harder to live up to the outstanding reputation you gave them. While Marquet advises you not to focus on the past, Carnegie says that you can reference how well someone did in the past if they’ve been recently falling behind to inspire them to work harder.

Language that focuses on others. According to Marquet, you can draw your team’s attention away from their performance (and thereby prevent them from judging themselves)  by asking them what advice they would give to other teams in similar situations. According to Carnegie, you can similarly direct attention away from your team’s performance and help them identify areas for improvement by sharing relevant experiences you’ve had in the past and, more importantly, mistakes you’ve made. This helps others recognize that making mistakes is normal and encourages them to make improvements like you did.

Language that focuses on the action. Giving feedback on a person’s actions rather than the person themselves can help preserve their pride, Carnegie argues. People want to feel valuable and will be more open to your feedback if you make them feel that way. Carnegie suggests you emphasize that the person’s mistakes were due to inexperience or a moment of inattentiveness rather than their lack of ability. He also recommends you voice your confidence in them in public.

Why Reflection at Work Is Crucial for Project Management

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  • Why most leadership language discourages workers from speaking up
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Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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