Two Approaches to Work: Reflection vs. Reaction

21 Mar

thinker1A friend suggested that I write on the difference between reflection and reaction in the workplace. So often at work we get encouragement to ACT rather than THINK. For some, the result is a lot of activity not preceded by careful preparation, and that can cause trouble.

This question made me cogitate on different kinds of thinkers at work, and how we get noticed for the “right” sort of behaviors, as valued by the business-place. My friend has a good point, one that I’ve struggled with mightily as well. In a world where people value “busyness” as a mark of productive “business,” what’s a thinker to do? How do we properly value the time spent in thinking, BEFORE doing, so as to be most strategic–and therefore proactive rather than reactive?

In other words, is it a bad thing to stare out the window, twirl my pen like a baton or throw wadded up balls of paper into the trashcan from a distance of five feet?

Here’s his exact question:

[I]n business being decisive seems to be valued over being reflective. Being decisive seems to be equated with being productive. Read: thinking about stuff too much consumes the time that could be spent on production. There is merit to this. But too many people I have worked with equate reflection with indecisiveness.

So here’s my question (rhetorical): what kinds of things can people like me—people predisposed to being reflective—do to structure reflection so it doesn’t appear to be formless to the “decision makers”? That being said, unstructured reflection through discussion and experimentation is really valuable. What can be done to preserve a space for this? Is it possible to argue that there is an ROI on unstructured reflection?

Here are some ways I’ve found to think, then work:

  1. Schedule Thinking Time. I once worked at a place where the pace was such that I often forgot to eat, use the bathroom or breathe. These are basic, life-giving bodily requirements best not ignored, and I paid the price for not taking care of my body at the expense of productivity. Once the basics were under control, a good friend suggested that I carve out dedicated thinking time every Friday afternoon, since Fridays tend to be quieter. This worked, somewhat. Another way to do this is to get to work a bit earlier than others OR (not both) stay a bit later, to give yourself some quiet time without distractions. Point being that quality thinking may require some scenario examination, research, and pondering pros and cons. This is hard work, and it can’t be done in a matter of minutes. Thinking goes beyond the billable 15-minute increment.
  2. Remind Yourself and Powers That Be of Expert Wisdom. If you work at a place where people are constantly hovering over you, keeping the pressure on to produce, produce, produce, carving out time is not so easy. It’s not always simple to control what’s coming at us at work. Some days feel like getting shot off inside a bottle rocket. You just hang on for dear life. Thomas Friedman and Richard Florida discuss the importance of the knowledge worker in the 21st-century economy, and YOU are that person. Knowledge workers are people who have a particular expertise and skillset that cannot be automated. Teachers, writers, skilled technicians, designers…all of these careers fall into the knowledge worker category. A distinguishing feature of knowledge workers is that they are a HOT COMMODITY. Your employer cannot afford to lose you, because training time to get someone else up to your level is costly. Another distinguishing feature is that the knowledge workers are precise and can move quickly when the need presents itself, because of their fine-tuned abilities, but they are valued for their THINKING. And sometimes it does take time to think well. Maybe I am overstating the obvious, but I believe that a deftly worded explanation of this logic is the polite version of “back off and let me think a minute here!”
  3. Know Thyself and Others. I recently retook the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. As was the case in my 20s when I first took this test, I am still an INTJ. Guess what? Like all personality types, this means that I have some great qualities. The nickname for this type is “mastermind”–sounds kind of diabolical (MWHAHHHAAAAHHHAAAA). I have tendencies toward strategic thinking and enjoying work on seemingly insurmountable problems. But it also means that I can be extremely annoying at times, like every other personality type. For me, this means that I can get stuck on things and appear very stubborn and a stickler for quality. I can also have an easy time seeing the big picture and get frustrated working with people who get “caught up” in the details, which are clearly also very important. The most important thing about knowing myself is knowing how my way of approaching work meshes with my managers’, peers and supervisees’ ways of work. My impatience to moving on towards “what’s next” is one of my best and worst traits, and this probably makes me one of those people that my friend would get frustrated with at work. With my MBTI, I am a Thinker and want to have a clear thought process before taking action, but I am a Judger and therefore apt to make decisions fairly easily. In working with colleagues who want to weigh all the options before deciding, I try to give them the space to do so. I will admit that I’m not always perfect in this area and probably am a person who others think (at times) is “in their face” checking to make sure there’s forward movement. But I try not to be a pain about it. I am also driven by the need for some sense of workplace harmony, so that helps.

All of this is to say that having some clarity on one’s own inclinations and how they interact with others’ goes a long way in the workplace.  Appreciation of the balancing act between action and reflection is critical. Both are important, and one cannot be sacrificed for the other.

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One Response to “Two Approaches to Work: Reflection vs. Reaction”

  1. INTJ Personality November 13, 2010 at 1:35 am #

    I’m also an INTJ and like most of us have faced this kind of issue. You said:

    “In a world where people value “busyness” as a mark of productive “business,” what’s a thinker to do?”

    This is why one of my favorite quotes is this one attributed to Hemingway:

    “Never mistake motion for action”

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