Self-Reflection: Why It’s Important for Your Career

Self-reflection is a critical component of self-awareness, a key management skill, and experts offer steps on how to achieve it.

Written by Dawn Kawamoto
Published on Aug. 10, 2022
Self-Reflection: Why It’s Important for Your Career
Image: Shutterstock

Is the glare on your computer screen the closest you’ve ever gotten to self-reflection? You may be missing out on an opportunity to stretch your management skills in a critical way. 

Self-reflection is an important building block of self-awareness, a critical management skill, career experts and tech executives said.

It’s a skill that shouldn’t be underplayed but often is — initially.

“I remember working with a group of engineers as a leadership development facilitator. They were very cynical about the elements of the program that had self-reflection in them in the beginning, but by the end of the program, they told me some of the most helpful stuff we did was self-reflection,” Julia Carden, director of Carden Consulting, told Built In.

How do you define self-reflection?

Self-reflection is the ability to see and evaluate your thinking, emotional and behavioral processes. In other words, you reflect on why you think and act the way that you do.

In fact, Carden wishes someone had taught her how to thoughtfully self-reflect so she could have incorporated those practices in her early twenties during the beginning of her career.

“I would have started journaling and reflecting on seeing myself as a leader, asking myself questions like: Who are you as a leader? What’s your purpose as a leader? What legacy do you want to leave behind as a leader?” Carden said. 

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Self-Reflection in Practice

Self-reflection is more than looking at your image on the surface of a clear lake. It’s looking below the surface and analyzing why you behave the way you do.

“Self-reflection really helps us connect to ourselves and really think about ourselves and how we’re showing up to others. That enables us to connect with others,” said Carden.

Self-reflection also needs constant practice to develop over time and is different than being self-aware

“You can say, ‘I know exactly who I am and I’m not going to think about it anymore.’ That’s someone who is self-aware but no longer self-reflective,” said Andrew Brodsky, assistant professor of management at the University of Texas at Austin.

But in order to become self-aware, you need to first be self-reflective, said experts. Self-reflection comes with asking yourself questions about your behavior and decisions and reflecting on your answers. You’ll start to recognize different patterns and begin to think about how you want to act with this new self-awareness, Brodsky explained. 

Self-reflection also serves as a building block for self-awareness, said Allan Church, co-founder and managing partner of Maestro Consulting and former senior vice president of global talent management at PepsiCo. And self-awareness, in turn, is an important component of emotional intelligence and also learning agility, both desirable traits in managers and leaders, he said.

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How Self-Reflection Can Make You a Better Leader

“Individuals who are unable to reflect on their strengths and opportunities tend to be overconfident and inflate their own perceptions of themselves as leaders which can be disastrous to their careers and the organizations in which they work,” Church said, referencing work on incompetent leaders by psychologist and author Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic. 

Data bears out the importance of self-reflection, given its critical role in self-awareness.

Poorly performing companies had 20 percent more employees with self-awareness blindspots than higher performing companies, according to a 2013 report by The Korn/Ferry Institute, the research arm of talent management firm Korn/Ferry International. Blind spots are situations where an employee has a higher assessment of themselves than what others give them, such areas, in areas involving developing talent, building effective teams or managing conflict.

“Individuals who are unable to reflect on their strengths and opportunities tend to be overconfident and inflate their own perceptions of themselves as leaders which can be disastrous to their careers and the organizations in which they work.”

Tech executives give greater insight into why these stats bear out. 

Abbas Raza, vice president of engineering and human capital management at Atlas, asks his managers, direct reports, and colleagues to give him feedback and then actively reflects on his actions and takes notes to monitor his progress of making change in the areas he needs to work on. 

Rich Hua, global head of EPIC leadership for Amazon Web Services (AWS), also makes a large concerted effort to engage in mindful self-reflection, he told Built In.

“This is key because we can’t internalize any insights if we don’t self-reflect,” he said.

Laura Edwards-Lassner, senior director of talent management at BeyondTrust, also regularly practices self-reflection. It gives her an opportunity to continually grow as a person and a professional by asking herself harder questions.

If Edwards-Lassner is surprised by the way she is reacting in a given situation, she will ask herself such questions as why she is presenting herself in that manner and what triggers may have been activated.

Engineers have gained noticeably more resilience and greater tolerance and patience because of their self-reflection work as part of the leadership program, Carden said.

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Strategies to Practice Self-Reflection

A number of engineers Carden works with have never practiced self-reflection prior to taking her program. She starts them on this path by asking them to think of a time or event that was uncomfortable and reflect on that with her. This discussion might kickstart their journaling, meditation or mindfulness as they begin their self-reflective journey, she said.

One way to begin meditation, journaling or mindfulness is by slowing down, which entails turning off your cell phone, email and other devices, Carden said.

“You turn your thoughts inward towards you rather than being distracted with devices,” she said, adding that most people practice meditation and mindfulness every day and some research has shown there is merit to frequent practicing.

However, self-reflection is about “being” rather than “doing,” and daily meditation and journaling may seem paradoxical. Carden suggested journaling or meditating only when something happens that is worth taking a pause to think about it.

“When one of your direct reports says something that’s upsetting, or maybe one of your direct reports announces they are leaving, you may think this is the time that’s worth pausing,” she explained.

For Edwards-Lassner, her entry into meditation began with 10-minute guided meditation tapes. Meditation helped her understand the things that were surrounding her that impacted her feelings. 

Edwards-Lassner realized she couldn’t change what was happening, but could change the way she reacted to external forces, she said. 

Journaling also is a common step with self-reflection. You pause, become introspective, and write down what went well and what didn’t, Brodsky said, adding, “You’re actually forcing yourself to take the time to think about it.”

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What Are the Challenges of Self-Reflection?

Building and maintaining a habit into your regular routine is tough. Especially when the practice is new. Remember, everyone will have a different experience and process when it comes to self-reflection.

“People who have high anxiety tend to attribute everything that goes wrong to themselves, even when it’s not their fault,” Brodsky said. “On the other extreme, people have overly inflated views of themselves. So, instead of engaging in self-reflection to figure things out, they think they know exactly what they’re doing.”

“On the other extreme, people have overly inflated views of themselves. So, instead of engaging in self-reflection to figure things out, they think they know exactly what they’re doing.”

Many people tend to avoid reflecting on their own performance because it’s uncomfortable or are sensitive about evaluating areas where they fail, said Anita Williams Woolley, associate professor of organizational behavior and theory at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business. . 

“It’s a human tendency to avoid thinking about or talking about situations that make us feel uncomfortable,” Woolley said, offering this workaround, “Instead, you can sort of think about it as a means to an end, right?” 

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