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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

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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.

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