July – December 2020

-reflective-practice-can-strengthen-management-learning

How reflective practice can strengthen management learning

The Steinhoff Saga Management review - University of Stellenbosch Business School

July – December 2020

-reflective-practice-can-strengthen-management-learning

How reflective practice can strengthen management learning

By Dr Jane Robertson, Dr Heidi Le Sueur and Dr Nicky Terblanche

  • DEC 2020
  • Tags Leadership

13 minutes to read

SHARE

The art of reflection in action learning
As the business landscape changes, so management development programmes (MDPs) have to move with the times. Action learning is a popular and well-established method used in MDPs, which requires participants to solve real, complex and at times stress-inducing problems within organisations. Working in small groups, MDP participants tackle existing business challenges with a view to arriving at practical outcomes and solutions.

According to the literature, an action learning approach should include a reflection component to enhance learning. Reflection involves thinking deeply and critically about the problem-solving process, one’s personal views and attitudes, the contribution of the team and individual members, and lessons learnt. It helps to crystallise one’s thoughts and encourages more balanced decision-making – which is one of the hallmarks of an effective manager and leader. In an action learning context, reflection is both an individual process and a team process, which requires participants to think about the overall experience and not just the technical issues surrounding a business ‘problem’.

There are several ways in which participants can practise reflection. Recording thoughts and ideas in writing is generally seen to improve critical thinking and observational skills. In this regard, journaling has often been cited as an effective strategy. Drawing images is another useful technique as it encourages visual expression being given to personal attitudes, beliefs and feelings.

Reflection involves thinking deeply and critically about the problem-solving process, one’s personal views and attitudes, the contribution of the team and individual members, and lessons learnt.

However, not all management development programme participants take to reflection naturally and sometimes struggle to engage with the process. The reasons for this are varied: a lack of skill in using reflection-enhancing tools, like keeping a personal journal; awkwardness or stress in thinking deeply about certain issues; an unsupportive organisational environment; and a lack of time to properly commit to the process. Action learning facilitators can play an important role in encouraging reflective practice among participants. Yet their role is not crisply defined, and tends to vary according to the particular learning context and the dynamics within the group.

While a fair amount of attention has been given in the management development literature to reflection and its value as a tool to develop self-knowledge, there has been limited research on how this can be achieved. What is needed, therefore, is a better understanding of how reflection can be systematically developed in an action learning context. This article reports on a study that was conducted in South Africa to address this identified research gap and explore how reflective practice can be encouraged as part of an action learning approach used in MDPs.

How the study was conducted
Qualitative research was used, which took the form of a narrative inquiry. This involved the study participants’ learning experiences during the MDP (presented in hand-drawn pictures and also reported in in-depth interviews) being analysed by the researchers and the underlying reflective process gleaned, including any identified commonalities across the group.

In an action learning context, reflection is both an individual process and a team process, which requires participants to think about the overall experience and not just the technical issues surrounding a business ‘problem’.

The participant sample (16 individuals in total) was drawn from three MDPs, conducted by an accredited South African business school, which all followed an action learning approach and used the services of experienced action learning facilitators. The programme content differed slightly from one MDP to the next, but all three programmes were designed to develop managers and leaders who are adept at navigating challenging situations and arriving at well-informed decisions. During the interviews, participants were asked about their emotions, significant (‘aha’) moments, and any altered assumptions or beliefs resulting from the action learning. The hand-drawn pictures served as interview props, used by the researchers to probe various aspects of participants’ reported learning experiences. The researchers then used the transcribed interviews and the hand-drawn pictures to write interpretive stories for the participants.

Key findings from the study
Two main themes, relating to what influences and aids reflective practice, were identified during the analysis of the collected data: dealing with emotions and practising reflection.

Not all management development programme participants take to reflection naturally and sometimes struggle to engage with the process.

Regarding their emotional reaction to the action learning process, some participants said that reflection had proved challenging and had filled them with a sense of discomfort. Some people reported that it was not in their nature to engage in deep reflection (as they were very ‘analytical’), while others found it difficult to deal with the emotions that in-depth reflection stirred, both personally and within the MDP group. However, various studies have revealed that feeling uncomfortable is an essential part of action learning, as the act of questioning helps to challenge existing mind-sets and uncover new truths.

Besides discomfort, another emotion that was triggered during the action learning process was courage – for example, courage to be open to new ideas and opportunities, courage to take risks, and courage to trust the unfamiliar and set new, empowering goals. Without courage, some participants reported, they might have been overwhelmed by the action learning and not experienced its transformative powers.

Practising reflection, in turn, involves various activities, including learning to reflect (about oneself and the business challenge confronting the team), facilitating reflection (with an experienced facilitator guiding – and not dominating ‒ the process and creating a safe and conducive learning environment), making time to reflect in order to promote ‘mindfulness’, and engaging in active questioning (posing questions to oneself, other participants and the organisation). In the study, there was a tendency for the questioning activity to be somewhat chaotic, with questions often appearing directionless and difficult to corral into useful answers and insights. However, questioning on the part of the facilitator (both to support and challenge the group’s thinking) helped to give some structure to the proceedings. In action learning, questioning is a useful technique for getting participants to shift from an individual mind-set to a team mind-set.

Action learning facilitators can play an important role in encouraging reflective practice among participants. Yet their role is not crisply defined, and tends to vary according to the particular learning context and the dynamics within the group.

Another technique that is often used to practise reflection is keeping a journal. The participants in the study were given a journal at the beginning of the MDP and asked to record their thoughts, feelings and ideas as time went by. Although some participants attested to its value, others found journaling difficult.

Value of the study
Not only did the study provide new insights into the relatively under-researched topic of how reflective practice can enhance the quality of action learning in an MDP, it also drew attention to the frequent, but erroneous, assumption that participants are already well-versed in reflective tools and techniques when they embark on the programme. This is why the role of the action learning facilitator is so important, as they can make the difference between positive, fruitful learning experiences and uncomfortable, unproductive ones.

While a narrative inquiry was well suited to a study of this nature because of the need to probe personal, embedded thoughts and feelings, it has some inherent limitations because the analytical process is necessarily subjective and therefore varies from one situation to the next. As a result, action learning does not follow a prescribed pattern and is likely to remain a ‘work in progress’ for researchers and practitioners alike, according to the researchers. Yet, reflection is an important skill in many areas of life and, if practised regularly, can go a long way towards keeping people more mindful and discerning, irrespective of their culture, age or profession.

Reflection is an important skill in many areas of life and, if practised regularly, can go a long way towards keeping people more mindful and discerning, irrespective of their culture, age or profession.

  • Find the original article here: Robertson, J., Le Sueur, H. & Terblanche, N. (2020). Reflective practice during action learning in management development programmes. European Journal of Training and Development, 3 August 2020. https://www.emerald.com/insight/2046-9012.htm
  • Dr Nicky Terblanche is head of USB’s MPhil in Management Coaching programme.
  • Dr Heidi le Sueur was a senior lecturer at USB at the time of writing this article.
  • Jane Robertson is a director of Training Partners in Cape Town.

Related articles

Aug 04

15 minutes to read

Accelerating financial inclusi...
Dec 11

17 minutes to read

The relationship between emplo...

Join the USB Management Review community

Subscribe to receive an email alert for new content on USB Management Review.

SUBSCRIBE NOW


Research effective leaders should be reflective leaders

Why effective leaders should be reflective leaders

The Steinhoff Saga Management review - University of Stellenbosch Business School

July – December 2020

Research effective leaders should be reflective leaders

Why effective leaders should be reflective leaders

By Poonam Harry-Nana and Anita Bosch

  • DEC 2020
  • Tags Leadership

13 minutes to read

SHARE

Can reflective learning help you become a better leader?
With societies becoming more complex and workplaces more challenging, effective leadership has become an indispensable tool for business success. Today’s business leaders are required to challenge conventional thinking, embrace change and manage diversity, while ensuring that employees at all levels of the organisation are well-equipped – both in skills and attitude – to do the job.

Not surprisingly, leadership development programmes at universities and other higher education institutions have become increasingly popular, both at the undergraduate and postgraduate or executive education level. Broadly, leadership development focuses on the ‘self’ in a leadership role and the personal attributes that need to be developed for optimal performance, including self-awareness, self-knowledge and self-regulation. At the core of this process is reflection. Some people are naturally inclined towards reflection; others less so. Yet it is possible, by applying various learning techniques and interventions, to develop or enhance this capability and make it the centrepiece of one’s leadership style.

Today’s business leaders are required to challenge conventional thinking, embrace change and manage diversity, while ensuring that employees at all levels of the organisation are well-equipped – both in skills and attitude – to do the job.

Business schools have a key role to play in developing reflective leaders, who are self-aware, accountable and ethical in their approach to managing resources and planning for the future. Curricula should therefore include reflective learning methodologies and applications. Anecdotal evidence suggests that students who embark on business programmes that include reflective learning opportunities invariably end up feeling more self-aware, self-confident and empowered. Through introspection, so the theory goes, these students probe their inner thoughts, beliefs and personal drivers, and in the process sharpen their worldview and enhance their emotional intelligence. This in turn enables them to better understand and navigate complex situations. Yet relatively little research has been conducted on the teaching or value of reflective learning in higher education business programmes, including its application to leadership development.

This article discusses a study that set out to explore how business school students/graduates in South Africa perceived the value of reflective learning interventions in leadership development programmes. Secondary aims of the study included determining which reflective learning interventions added value and how students/graduates felt they benefited from reflective learning. A literature review provided the theoretical foundation for the study, while primary research (using questionnaires and interviews) provided practical insights into the reflective learning phenomenon within the business school context.

The reflective learning continuum
Reflective learning is a multi-faceted concept which can be defined as ‘intellectual and affective activities that allow an individual to explore their experiences leading to new appreciations, understandings or evaluations’. Yet, to many people, engaging in critical reflection can be quite alien or even troubling if it disrupts their deeply entrenched beliefs about themselves. Moreover, reflective learning is a complex, emotional and intellectually demanding process that requires careful planning, skilful execution and time.

Reflective learning has different levels of intensity. Certain authors have made reference to a reflective learning continuum ‒ from habitual action (little or no reflection) to deep learning (intensive reflection). For example, little or no reflection involves minimal thought and engagement. Intensive reflection, on the other hand, involves serious soul-searching about currently held beliefs and perceptions, and even opens the door to the possibility of some of these beliefs and perceptions being altered.

Business schools have a key role to play in developing reflective leaders, who are self-aware, accountable and ethical in their approach to managing resources and planning for the future.

In a fast-changing and uncertain business environment, which calls for strong and adaptable leadership, the ability to engage in deep reflection can make the difference between pedestrian and creative, forward-looking decision-making.

How was the study conducted?
For the primary research, which constituted a descriptive study, an online questionnaire was used (using a secure online data-collection platform), together with follow-up interviews. Non-probability ‒ specifically, convenience ‒ sampling was used to arrive at the participant group. For the sample, the researchers targeted MBA students/graduates who were busy with or had completed their degree, and had completed a leadership development module within the previous five-year period. A total of 37 people, drawn from four business schools, participated in the study. The questionnaire was initially piloted among a small group of MBA students to test its accuracy and effectiveness.

Participants were asked three main questions: whether reflective learning interventions (such as journaling, personal development plans, self-assessment, and peer assessments and feedback) had added value to their leadership development journey; which specific interventions had added the most value; and what level of reflective learning (on the reflective learning continuum) they had experienced. Follow-up telephonic interviews were conducted with participants to clarify potential anomalies in their answers and also to press them for more details on their reflective learning experiences. The two data-collection methods were used for the purpose of triangulation, which added to the rigour of the research process.

Students who embark on business programmes that include reflective learning opportunities invariably end up feeling more self-aware, self-confident and empowered.

What did the study find?
There was an overwhelming affirmative response to the question relating to whether participants believed that reflective learning interventions had added value to their leadership development journey. Just over a third of the participants said that the reflective learning experience had been life-changing and transformative. The top-cited benefit by participants was the development of self-awareness and self-reflective competencies, followed by feelings of validation and contentedness. Other benefits mentioned by participants were a new-found appreciation of their role as leaders, recognition of areas needing improvement or with potential for growth, and the importance of explicit and implicit feedback in developing leadership mastery.

As far as specific interventions were concerned, the majority of participants found value in writing their life story/autobiography, with just under half citing self-assessment and/or peer assessment and feedback as being valuable. A smaller proportion saw value in writing a personal journal.

To many people, engaging in critical reflection can be quite alien or even troubling if it disrupts their deeply entrenched beliefs about themselves.

All participants reported that they had experienced a deeper level of reflective learning, with just under half having experienced intensive reflection ‒ at the high end of the reflective learning continuum. These individuals were likely to see the world (and themselves) quite differently, after having been immersed in a rigorous process of self-discovery.

Interestingly, two of the participants reported that their experience of reflective learning – while providing new insights – had been very challenging for them and had stirred negative emotions. They said that the reflective learning approach did not resonate with their personal learning styles and their natural inclination would be to avoid such an activity. Their reactions might have been the result of a particular type of upbringing or cultural orientation, or a reluctance to delve into their (perhaps painful) past. 

Key insights on reflective practice
While the study had a positive (and in some cases profound) impact on most of the participants, it also provided important insights for higher education institutions, and business schools in particular, that are running leadership development programmes.

Those participants in the study who did not have an overwhelmingly positive reaction to the reflective learning component of their leadership development programme indicated that their experience would have been enhanced if they had had been exposed to more real-life interventions – such as business simulations rather than academic, written or classroom-based interventions. While not necessarily being the ‘right’ or ‘better’ way of developing reflective skills, this suggests that different people have different learning styles, with some having a preference for experiential situations that mirror real life.

If more leadership development programmes in South Africa adopted a systematic reflective learning approach, it would help to infuse the business sector with more high-calibre, astute leaders.

The researchers used the findings from the study to develop a framework that can be used to enhance the design of reflective learning interventions in leadership development programmes. Incorporating the concept of a reflective learning continuum, the framework recognises the importance of students’ readiness for reflective learning, their learning style preferences and their previous life experiences when designing optimal programmes. Appropriate interventions can then be determined. The framework lends itself to further development and testing, such as identifying the link between prior life experiences and the depth of reflection that people are willing to engage in, which would help to inform an appropriate range of leadership development interventions.

Notwithstanding the need for further research and for tailoring the reflective learning teaching approach for different groups of people, the preliminary results from this study show that if more leadership development programmes in South Africa adopted a systematic reflective learning approach, it would help to infuse the business sector with more high-calibre, astute leaders ‒ which is essential given the challenges that the country is facing.

  • Find the original article here: Harry-Nana, P. & Bosch, A. (2020). A framework to enhance the design of reflective leadership development learning interventions. South African Journal of Higher Education, 34(4), 60‒76. https://www.journals.ac.za/index.php/sajhe/article/view/3536
  • Prof Anita Bosch holds the Women at Work Research Chair at USB.

Related articles

Aug 04

15 minutes to read

Accelerating financial inclusi...
Dec 11

17 minutes to read

The relationship between emplo...

Join the USB Management Review community

Subscribe to receive an email alert for new content on USB Management Review.

SUBSCRIBE NOW


Research Are women in Africa reaching the top?

Women leaders in business and higher education in Africa: Are they reaching the top?

The Steinhoff Saga Management review - University of Stellenbosch Business School

July – December 2020

Research Are women in Africa reaching the top?

Women leaders in business and higher education in Africa: Are they reaching the top?

By Dr Njeri Mwagiru

  • DEC 2020
  • Tags Leadership

15 minutes to read

SHARE

Addressing organisational cultures
Organisational culture can perpetuate stereotypes and biases about what women can do, sculpting women’s leadership and roles to fit predefined norms.

Understanding women’s organisational leadership in Africa is complicated, firstly because of a lack of data, and, secondly, due to constraints within organisational environments. This article reflects on challenges facing African women in reaching leadership positions in business and higher education institutions, specifically in South Africa and Kenya.

What are the obstacles they need to overcome? What are the strategies they use to negotiate their organisational contexts?

Limited data and low representation of women leaders in Africa
Not many studies have researched on women in organisational leadership positions in Africa. Also, there notably aren’t that many women in senior and leadership positions on this continent.

The African Development Bank acknowledges a lack of regional information on women in senior positions in African private sectors. Feminist studies also identify a significant gap in African leadership positions filled by women. The same applies to women in higher education, where there is a small number of pipeline candidates entering and rising to leadership positions in academic institutions.

Understanding women’s organisational leadership in Africa is complicated, firstly because of a lack of data, and, secondly, due to constraints within organisational environments.

In South Africa, various researchers refer to the poor representation of women in academic leadership despite some gains. According to Universities South Africa (USAf), women students’ enrolment at universities is higher at 58% compared to 42% for men. Yet, data from the Higher Education Management Information System shows that, in 2016, women occupied only a few senior academic positions at universities.

In the business sector, a 2017 Leadership and Diversity Report by the Kenya Institute of Management looked at women’s representation in 52 listed companies in Kenya. Positively it is projected that gender parity in this East African country’s boardrooms could be achieved by 2030. This based on a 75% increase in women’s representation in corporate leadership from 2012 to 2017. In Africa, Kenya has the highest percentage of women board directors at 19.8%, followed by South Africa at 17.4%. These numbers however remain below the minimum required gender equity percentages of 30%-50% representation.

In Africa, Kenya has the highest percentage of women board directors at 19.8%, followed by South Africa at 17.4%.

In South Africa, despite gains achieved for women, top management positions in organisations are predominantly occupied by men. In 2018, in South Africa’s top 40 companies, one CEO was a woman, while 22% of executives within these companies were women. In 2017, the Business Women’s Association reported that women continue to be underrepresented in executive management and CEO positions. Further, the percentage of women directorships in listed companies on the Johannesburg Securities Exchange decreased by an estimated 10%, indicating a decline in companies in South Africa with gender diverse boards. According to the Business Women’s Association, among JSE-listed companies in 2017, women constituted only 11.8% of board chairpersons, with one in six JSE-listed companies having no women on their boards.

The trend locally and globally is a push towards increased employment and representation of women in business management and higher education. Yet, women mostly fill positions with less power and authority than men. The African Development Bank noted that talent is crucial for advancement and competitive advantage, but “despite the growing number of qualified women in the workforce in all areas, the female talent pool continues to remain underutilised – this is a worldwide phenomenon”.

Organisational constraints to women’s leadership
Achieving gender inequity in organisations has typically focused on numbers which, while important, should not neglect attention to issues that prevent women in leadership from influencing organisational agendas.

In 2018, in South Africa’s top 40 companies, one CEO was a woman …

Commendably, both Kenya and South Africa have constitutional and government mandates for women’s equal representation and opportunity. In South Africa, the Employment Equity Act and Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment (BBBEE), and in Kenya, Article 27 of the National Constitution provide legislative frameworks for affirmative and equity-based action. Also, in the private sectors in Kenya and South Africa, gender diversity principles are generally integrated as part of good corporate governance.

Examining women’s experiences in organisational leadership in these countries therefore, can contribute to an understanding of the supportive policy frameworks needed for positive outcomes for women in practice.

To explore and understand more about women leaders’ experiences in Kenya and South Africa, interviews were conducted with 104 women in senior positions, representing 60 organisations in the higher education and business sectors in these two countries. The interviews and focus-group discussions took place over a period of four years.

The trend locally and globally is a push towards increased employment and representation of women in business management and higher education. Yet, women mostly fill positions with less power and authority than men.

The interview questions covered, among others, leadership experiences (referring to barriers and enablers), and the organisational factors impacting their decision making as a key responsibility and indicator of effective leadership. Questions were also asked about the role of leaders in promoting greater gender equity in senior positions.

These interviews were then scrutinised to look for the voice of the individual (I), the voice of relationships (we), and a contextual reading (culture, norms and expectations). In analysing the data, the research examined gender-based discrimination experienced by these women, as well as the strategies they used to navigate challenging work environments.

What did the study find?
Shared experiences among women in organisational leadership positions indicate that, with respect to equal access to opportunities and agency in professional environments, these women’s contributions are hampered by traditional gender-typing, informal exclusive groupings within organisations, competitive and ‘status quo’ cultures, and hierarchical structures.

Reasons for organisational resistance to change also include long board tenure which can lead to groupthink and a dismissal of alternative ideas.

  • Culturally restrictive environments: The women in this study cited entrenched traditional attitudes to women in the workplace as a challenge. Discriminatory cultural mind-sets can limit the distribution of decision-making power and side-line women in leadership.
  • Exclusive networks: Research respondents said that decision-making in their organisations was challenging. Traditional views of gender roles persisted, with male voices largely privileged, and the potential for women leaders to contribute to decision-making generally overlooked. Sociocultural prejudices limited women’s leadership functions.
  • Keeping the status quo: In an ever-changing world, it is important to question the status quo and to welcome diverse perspectives. Not fully including women can limit how organisations respond to unpredictable environments. Reasons for organisational resistance to change also include long board tenure which can lead to groupthink and a dismissal of alternative ideas.
  • Organisational hierarchies: Research respondents in both the business and higher education sectors referred to male-oriented social clubs and activities from which women are excluded (by rules) or discouraged from participating in (by intimation). Networks in organisational culture can indeed marginalise women.
  • Not taking gender-specific needs into account: The integration of family, work and social roles can be challenging for women leaders. Here, organisations can help to support women’s gender-specific needs – such as flexible working arrangements and parenting support structures.

Continued advocacy is necessary to push back against gender inequity, and to insist on fair and equal opportunities for women.

What are the organisational facilitators?
Continued advocacy is necessary to push back against gender inequity, and to insist on fair and equal opportunities for women. According to the respondents, the following steps can help to support senior-level women:

  • Contribute to data collection: Improve data on the status of women in organisational leadership, as this can help with the design of appropriate measures and policies.
  • Facilitate policy implementation: Help to ensure compliance with policies and mandates. This includes setting gender equity and diversity targets, ensuring non-discriminatory recruitment and promotion practices, allowing flexible work arrangements, offering extended maternity and paternity leave, enforcing sexual harassment disciplinary processes, and ensuring gender-equal remuneration.
  • Adhere to best practice: Recommendations to promote women’s leadership can draw on best practice from various fields.
  • Leverage training, networking and mentorship support: This can include mentorship and sponsors, coaching, career guidance, formal networking programmes, and diversity awareness training.

Forward planning and preparedness helps to anticipate risks and make use of opportunities.

Enablers and obstacles on women’s leadership path
When the women in this study were asked to identify the strategies that supported them the most on their career paths, they mentioned the following:

  • Performative flexibility: It is advantageous for women to align their behaviour in the workplace and in leadership roles in order to meet personal and professional objectives.
  • Planning ahead: Forward planning and preparedness helps to anticipate risks and make use of opportunities.
  • An adaptive leadership style: It is important to apply the leadership style most suitable to the situation in order to motivate staff and achieve objectives.
  • Strategic communication: They highlighted the ability to communicate effectively as crucial for organisational and team leadership.
  • Information: Access to information was seen as important to remain relevant and enhance competencies.

This study has shown that growing numbers of women in leadership positions do not necessarily translate into women having more agency in organisations.

Harnessing women’s talent for Africa’s future
This study has shown that growing numbers of women in leadership positions do not necessarily translate into women having more agency in organisations. More women in leadership roles does not correlate with increased participation in decision-making processes.

This calls for a stronger focus on policy support, mentorship, peer networking and flexible work environments. Learning from best practice and adapting organisational structures and cultures will also help to attain gender parity in leadership.

Ongoing advocacy is needed to create organisational environments that allow for women’s increased participation, contributions and influence. The meaningful inclusion and recognition of women’s talent can contribute to effective leadership in Africa and beyond.

The meaningful inclusion and recognition of women’s talent can contribute to effective leadership in Africa and beyond.

  • See the journal article here: Mwagiru, N. (2019). Women’s leadership in business and higher education: A focus on organisational experiences in South Africa and Kenya. Agenda, 33(1), 117-128. DOI: 10.1080/10130950.2019.1600374
  • Dr Mwagiru is a Senior Futurist at the Institute for Futures Research (IFR) at Stellenbosch University.

Related articles

Aug 04

15 minutes to read

Accelerating financial inclusi...
Dec 11

17 minutes to read

The relationship between emplo...

Join the USB Management Review community

Subscribe to receive an email alert for new content on USB Management Review.

SUBSCRIBE NOW