This blog is presented by the IPR Organizational Communication Research Center.
Is self-reflection (SR) the difference between good and great leadership? Many studies support this idea, and our new research about SR among North American and Russian PR leaders provides evidence of its importance in the profession (Self-reflection Study).
Self-awareness and reflection have long been highly valued, and research consistently reveals their powerful benefits. Self-awareness is “the ability to see ourselves clearly—to understand who we are, how others see us and how we fit into the world” (Eurich, 2017, p. 3). Self-reflection is the primary way we examine ourselves and how others see us. It is deliberate introspection to better understand and learn from our thoughts, emotions and experiences.
SR can be a transformative experience that leads to an altered awareness and sense of identity. SR also may increase emotional intelligence (Goleman, 1995) and deepen critical-thinking, improve decision-making, and enrich relationship building (Eurich, 2017; Miller, 2013). SR is especially crucial for leaders given their many influences on others. However, SR is rarely explored in our profession.
To learn more about SR among public relations leaders, Dr. Elina Erzikova and I examined SR in Russian and North American communication leaders. Depth interviews, averaging 45 minutes in length, were conducted with 15 Russian (9-F, 6-M) and 15 American (8-F, 7-M) leaders to help answer five research questions: how and to what extent the leaders practiced SR, barriers to productive SR, practical benefits of SR in their work role, and the extent to which mentoring might contribute to the development of SR and leadership capabilities.
Similarities in SR in Russia and North America
Overall, PR leaders in both regions shared similar views about the role, process and benefits of SR, though it is practiced and valued somewhat differently in the two systems. Leaders in the two regions said they:
- Self-reflected virtually every day, though approaches to SR varied;
- Recognized the value and importance of SR in critical thinking, decision-making, relationship building and enhancing leadership skills and capacity;
- Encountered similar barriers to productive SR: 1) the ego problem, which may inhibit honest self-evaluation, or lead to excessive self-criticism, 2) constant time pressures, and 3) the absence of supervisory or organizational support for SR.
- Used SR to deal with similar workplace issues, e.g., managing difficult relationships with employees or bosses, building teams, managing crises, and reducing stress and anxiety.
SR differences between Russian and North American Leaders
Four differences also were found, the most substantial being the me-reflection approach used by the Russians (a nearly total focus on the self) versus the we-reflection approach used by N. Americans (incorporating others in their SR). Also, Russians raised far more concerns about “dangerous” SR, or excessive self-criticism, while Americans more strongly valued the role and influence of mentors, whom they suggested were the “best” SR teachers.
Regarding approaches to SR, about half of the Russians said classical literature spurred their SR. Reading great literature, writing in journals and working with a therapist were their primary approaches to SR. Most North American leaders described more holistic approaches that involved combinations of 1) daily self-talks, 2) inspired writings or journaling, and 3) seeking feedback from team members, colleagues or spouses.
Perhaps the study’s richest contributions are the practical, actionable implications for improving SR capabilities and practices among professionals, educators and students. The most valuable may be a six-step strategic process—a clear pathway—that describes how to prepare mentally for SR, and then to process, plan and carry out insights from the introspection.
The Strategic Self-Reflection Process
- Make time for SR. It’s too important to be too busy. Walking, exercising, riding to work, reading books, writing in a diary—choose an approach that works best for you.
- Create the “right” mindset. Like putting on a game face, in SR we must create a mental space where SR fills the foreground. We can’t empty our brains, but we can adjust focus.
- Be self-honest and balance your assessment. Don’t let ego overpower your self-critique, and don’t let self-criticism (rumination) lead to inaction or loss of confidence.
- Formulate actions based on your assessment and evaluation. Calendar them. Discuss them with a mentor or colleague.
- Carry out actions. Be professional, timely and authentic. Rehearse the actions (and words) to test and refine them.
- Self-reflect on the outcomes and renew the cycle. Writing things down may help.
Individuals can use this process, and mentors and teachers can help students and young professionals frame each step with relevant questions to ask the self along the way.
The leaders we interviewed also suggested many approaches to stimulate and improve student SR in the classroom, an important but often underutilized space for improving self-awareness. We grouped the suggestions into seven building blocks.
Seven Building Blocks for SR in the Classroom:
- The foundation block is a firm commitment to developing students’ SR capabilities. Structure courses to include SR moments and practices into each class session, rather than highlighting SR in a single class session.
- Use Socratic teaching more often—less lecturing and more listening and questioning to stimulate critical-thinking and draw out ideas and underlying assumptions.
- Employ great literature, poetry, films, art and music to trigger journal writing, creative thinking and rich discussions about the self, dreams, hopes, values and behaviors.
- Conduct depth debriefs of projects, decisions and actions. Exhaust the who, what and what if Engage all students.
- Sharpen self-insights and team-insights with assessment tools like Strength/Finders, Myers-Briggs, Conflict Dynamics Profile or others. Highlight team leadership factors.
- Examine reoccurring workplace questions: Do my words and actions reflect core values? How do I contribute to team culture? How can I develop a better work relationship with my boss? How do others see my actions and behaviors?
- Use a “calendar approach” to help students reflect on and rehearse important, upcoming events or challenges. This builds SR skills and reinforces the action dimension.
Overall, our research underscores the positive power of SR found in other studies, and sheds light on the practice among some PR leaders. Is SR the big difference maker between good and great leadership? We don’t know for sure, but it certainly carries some weight in that regard, and so we wonder: Why is SR nearly invisible in our research, professional development programs and classroom activities? In extensive research, Eurich (2017) found only 10-15 percent of leaders were highly self-aware, though most declare they are, and they over value their skills and performance. It’s time to shine a brighter light on self-reflection.
Bruce K. Berger, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus, University of Alabama. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Eurich, T. (2017). Insight. New York: Crown Business.
Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional Intelligence. New York: Bantam Books.
Miller, B. (May1, 2013). 3 Leadership Benefit of Self-Reflection. Executive Velocity: https://www.executive-velocity.com/benefits-of-self-reflection/