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The Power of Structured Reflection to Drive Learning

The Power of Structured Reflection to Drive Learning
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We talked about, with regards to support, how you can help your team members build their personal boards of directors. And the value of that board of directors for helping your team members grow, develop, and ultimately achieve their career aspiration. There’s another form of support that I want to share with you. Some specific strategies that you can use to really help your team members learn from their experiences and that form of support is ultimately reflection. And reflecting backwards to make sure that we learn going forward.
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One of your roles as a team leader, is to make sure that sure that at pivotal moments in the team process, and this is not just at the end of a project or at the conclusion of your team being a team. But more consistently, more continuously, throughout your projects, throughout your assignments, at key points, making sure that you stop. You take a step back and you reflect on what’s working, what’s not working so that you can ensure that your team as a whole, as well as the individual team members, are learning form their experiences. Let me show you some data that illustrates just why this reflection is so important. This is a study that I did with 173 MBAs.
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These 173 MBAs were all going through the same 5 developmental experiences. And these experiences were designed to stretch and challenge these students, in ways that would help them grow and develop important teamwork and leadership skills. And I followed them over about a one year process. I randomly assigned these students to one of two conditions. In one condition, what I call here the Unstructured Reflection condition, is after each of these five developmental experiences, I had them meet with a trained coach, a facilitator, who asked them three simple questions. What happened in the experience, what worked, and what didn’t work? That’s a pretty common standard way of facilitating a reflection.
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In the other condition, I had these students go through a structured reflection process that I’ll share with you in a moment, that was designed in a way to attack a lot of the human biases, the psychological biases, that really get in the way of our ability to learn from experience. So, how we attribute success and failure, for example. Many of us when we fail, we like to attribute that to something other than ourselves, bad luck, not enough support, not enough resources. But when we succeed, it’s often because of our own doing. That is one of the biasing. We call it the fundamental attribution error that often gets in the way of learning.
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This structure reflection process that we designed, was modeled after the after action review process that has become pretty popular in military settings. But we designed it specifically for leadership development. And it was designed to attack all of these biases that get in the way of learning. So again, these 173 MBAs all going through the exact same 5 developmental experiences. All of these experiences are challenging. They stretch the students. But the only difference is, after each one of these experiences, how they reflected. And I want you to look at the difference. Over time, in this case over an eight month period, I had their peers, their team members rate them on their leadership performance in the team.
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So this is peer ratings of leadership performance where everybody in the team is rating everybody else. The students who went through this unstructured reflection, our data suggests that not only did they learn less, but they actually performed no different than they did at the outset. And so they weren’t growing, they weren’t learning, their behaviors weren’t becoming more effective over time. But look at what’s happening in the structured reflection. Where the students with the train coach and train facilitator, using this structure reflection process, again, that I will share with you in a moment. Those students actually experienced a statistically significant increase in peer ratings of leadership performance. They are growing and developing in ways that the other students simply are not.
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When I shared this with the MBA students, one of their reactions was, well is it really important, that my performance went up a little bit on the scale? Say, from a 3.4 to a 3.8, is that really meaningful to me? So, I went and I collected some additional data on things that MBAs and most of us care about, which is salary and career opportunities. And interestingly, what we found, is that between these two groups, the folks who engaged in the structured reflection process and likely created habits where they continued this reflection process throughout their MBA experience over the course of that two years.
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The result was a 9% increase in job offers and a 10% increase in the average salary on those job offers. And so yes, it is meaningful because if you compound that salary difference over the course of a 20 or 30 year career, we’re talking about a big difference in terms of dollars earned over the course of ones career. Simply by developing habits around how we reflect to make sure that the biases are not getting in the way of learning.
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And you, as a team leader, can use this structured reflection process to ensure that your team members are not falling trap to those biases and making sure that they are maximizing the learning as a team and as individuals from their experiences. So let me share with you some of the principles of that structure reflection process. 5 steps. The first step, make sure that you are reflecting as close to the event as possible. You don’t want to wait 6 months, 12 months, to reflect on what happened 6 to 12 months ago.
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You want to do it in real time, you want to make it a routine, a norm, a habit to reflect in real time on the events that are happening in your team. Second, you wanna have a structured plan. When you go into that reflection you wanna have a structured set of questions. A lot of those questions I outline in the article that we wrote, that focused on this study in the Journal of Life Psychology, which you can find online. But many of those questions are captured here, which is, use what if scenarios for the road not taken?
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For example, one of the questions I have in the structured plan, is when you ask an individual to describe what happened, and what worked and what didn’t work. What you then follow up with, is what if scenarios, which is what if you had done something different? How you do think the scenario or the situation would have played out? What if you had done something different? What if you had done something different than that? And making your team members articulate their assumptions for, what if they had done x, y, or z? What are their assumptions about how it would’ve played out?
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And then testing why they think those assumptions and why they have those scenarios in mind for what would have happened. That conversation is extremely powerful as a way to reflect, not only what did occur, but what might have occurred had we behaved differently. Then, from that, as part of your structured plan, you develop what I call if-then implications. If I had performed this way, then this would have happened. If I had performed this way, then this something else would have happened. Those if-then statements, with your team members, will force them to think very carefully about, well, if I performed in one way, this would have happened. If I had performed in a different way, this would have happened.
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That process, in the structure reflection, is critical. And, our data suggests, is the big difference between the unstructured reflection and the structured reflection. And then lastly, is establish public accountability for change. One of your roles as a team leader is to establish the system of accountability. It is very easy for us to commit to behavior change, but we all know behavior change is really hard. The only way behavior change happens is if we are accountable to that or for that change.
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One thing you can do as a team leader, is to set up regular meetings where you are meeting with your individual teams members and asking them about the behavior changes they’ve committed to. Another strategy you can use, is the team. Engaged as a team and helping each other. Share the learning goals. What behavior changes people want to engage in? That gives your team an opportunity to give each other feedback in a very open and transparent way. And ultimately to hold each other accountable for those changes. Very powerful.
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Our data, our research suggest that if you can follow these five steps to reflection, the learning, the development, the growth in your team, as well as for you as a team leader, is much much greater.
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