Go the retro. 5 ways you can build in reflection to improve performance.

“We do not learn from experience… we learn from reflecting on experience.”

That’s what American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer John Dewey said. And I think he was bang on.

Although it might seem like there’s less time than ever in your diary for reflection, it’s probably even more important than ever. Now, more than perhaps at any other time in history, leaders are facing complexity, pace of change and never-seen-before problems at a rate that is dizzying.

But a bit like a safe harbour that allows you the opportunity to regather yourself before you go back out to sea, a regular pause and recap, for yourself and your team, will not only provide calm in the storm, it will lead to improved performance and connection.

Research shows that reflecting on what you’ve done teaches you how to do it better next time. And this wasn’t a single finding either; these researchers did a series of studies, all showing that reflection boosts performance.

Whether it’s a formal review, a simple reflective practice or even asking a powerful reflective question at the right juncture, building reflective practices into your leadership practice is a good idea.

It doesn’t have to big swathes of time or complicated analysis to be effective, although depending on the circumstances, that might be warranted. Sometimes, it’s as little as five minutes. A simple and well-placed pause to consider “what are we noticing/learning?” can be both powerful and effective.

So, here are five ways you can build moments of reflection into your leadership practice:

  1. One on ones.

I have spoken about the power of one on ones here and here. As well as reviewing progress on tasks, including some “how are we/you going?” questions can be super effective.

Other questions you could pop into your one on ones that build reflection include:

  • What have been some highlights for you this month?
  • What have been some lowlights or challenges?

When talking about a mistake or learning, focus attention on “what did you learn? What would you do the same and what would you do differently next time?” followed by encouragement.

  1. Projects

The retro at the end of a project is more commonplace. But you shouldn’t have to wait until the end of a project to review how the project team are progressing. We’re not talking about progress reports on tasks here. This is more along the lines of identifying what’s working well and what you can improve in terms of process and relationships as the project progresses. Try to:

Explore project processes: what processes are working well and which may be causing excessive red tape or bottlenecks?

Explore working relationships: positive flashpoints (common instances) of where people or divisions have worked well together and what led to that, as well as pinpointing any recurring niggles in working relationships.

Regular reflection on these things, combined with idea generation, can help you nip issues in the bud before they fester.

  1. Meetings

Too often, we plough ahead with meetings when a little meeting review would help enormously. You can implement mini reviews by simply asking for feedback (short, sharp) at the end of the meeting on what worked well and what didn’t.

Or, if you’re discussing a big topic and you notice you’re all going around in circles, the energy has dropped, or things are coming unstuck, you can pause and simply ask:

  • What has been useful in the first part of this meeting as we discuss x?
  • Name one thing you’d like to be different in the way we discuss this topic moving forward?
  1. Daily or weekly, for personal leadership reflection

If you’re working on improving some aspect of your leadership (and if you aren’t, you should), regularly ask yourself:

  • Where did I put my learnings into practice this week? How did I apply it? What did I learn when I did?
  • How would I rate myself on (insert improving my listening/feedback/etc)? When did I do well and when did I fall short?

Even a simple gratitude practice at the end of each day applied to your work or your team can help.

  1. Team building or quarterly deep dive sessions

Getting people together with a goal of looking forward is a great time to also first reflect on where you are now, and where you have been. When you come together for team building sessions (see this blog post for some ideas), a simple “keep/stop/start” exercise or reviewing what’s going well and what’s not when it comes to the team can be a powerful way to improve, build self and team awareness and connect with each other.

There’s a lot of pressure to be in action mode. Action is good. But there’s enormous power in reflection too. 


  1. On Reflection....... - Partners in EXCELLENCE on August 12, 2023 at 5:30 am

    […] This was the opening line in one of the best posts I’ve read recently. It’s from the brilliant Suzi McAlpine, be sure to read the post: 5 ways you can build in reflection to improve performance. […]

  2. Lynette Evans on July 26, 2023 at 8:49 pm

    Awesome blog thanks. I will be taking a number of these points into my leadership straight away as we are moving into reviewing the cluster values and this really be help. Always great learning that sticks with your work Susie and again I thank you.
    Go well
    Lynette Evans

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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