2016 has arguably seen the greatest volume of change in a single year that many of us have experienced for a long time: the political rulebook has been rewritten, sporting records have been overturned and we’ve taken our first steps into a virtual reality. Without sounding too much like an acid reflux inducing “channel 4 yearly summary” a lot has happened and we are almost across the line! But before we can move forward, the value in looking backwards cannot be overstated.

Self-reflection is a concept that many of us are aware of, yet never give the attention it deserves. Almost every day, without even realising it, we critique our own actions. We replay that disagreement with a team member and analyse awkward conversations. These are forms of reflection, but to supplement the learning process we need to do this constructively. As Confucius stated, “learning without reflection is a waste. Reflection without learning is dangerous”.

Making mistakes is normal and actually beneficial (and we have all made them). However, by not actively reflecting on these experiences, we engage in a vain justification that ‘we’ll learn from it’. While at the time this makes us feel better, it holds us back from actually learning. If you want to truly learn from these mistakes and ensure that we don’t make the same ones in the future, it’s time to look inwards.

Evidence for the power of self-awareness on leadership performance, well-being and relationship building is rife in the literature. Look back over various decisions you have made; how did you behave when receiving that tricky news? Could you have communicated your appreciation to that individual more effectively? Were you as clear as you could have been when delivering those results? Interrogate these experiences. Newton’s third law comes to mind – your actions and subsequent reactions shaped your leadership experience over the last year. Challenge yourself. You can’t expect to go into the gym for the first time and lift the heaviest weights. Reflection is like a muscle – it needs to be progressively overloaded at steady increments before you can really use it to its full potential. But as with any workout regime, you have to start somewhere. Inward reflection will enable you to become more secure in self-acceptance and make progress in the coming year towards your personal ambitions. This process of accepting your experience and your reactions to it stands you in much better stead when attempting to understand other people. There is less chance of you being aware of an organisation’s needs or having empathy towards an employee’s situation without first having a sound understanding of your ‘self’.

So where do we start? A common misconception surrounding self-reflection is its association with that ‘wonderful thing’, hindsight. We use hindsight as a rationalisation of our mistakes. If we had known ‘x’ then ‘y’ would not have happened. However, this is merely a (basic) description of the event. Using Gibbs’ reflective cycle (1988) as the backbone of our reflection – a description of an experience is only skimming the surface. Holistic development derives from the “Big Bang”-like reaction of cognitive, interpersonal and intrapersonal experience. Examining each facet of an experience will help you integrate this experience and test your reactions for alignment with your established values.

Try using this framework in your reflection:

  • Description – Describe what happened
  • Thoughts and feelings – What were you thinking about the experience and how did this make you feel?
  • Evaluation – What was good and bad about the experience?
  • Analysis – What sense can you make of the situation and your reactions – was this in alignment with your core values?
  • Conclusion – What else could you have done, and how have you developed from this experience?
  • Action plan – If the situation arose again – what would you do the same or differently?

This does not have to be as monotonous as it sounds. One of the most effective (and simplest) ways to incorporate all of these reflective components is to write a letter. This should be addressed to you, at the start of 2016. Begin the writing process outlining a reminder of your core values, where you want to be, what you want to accomplish. Then work your way through each key experience from the year, how did this help or hinder those goals. Coming to terms with your strengths, areas for improvement, natural talents and actions will enable your ‘self’ to thrive in the new experiences 2017 will bring your way.

Gibbs, G (1988) Learning by doing: A guide to teaching and learning methods. Oxford Further

Education Unit, Oxford.