How Reflecting on Literature Improves Workplace Performance
July 17, 2014 | Ann Kowal Smith, Paul Jaussen
Image: Parmigianino, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, 1524, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna [Public Domain], via Wikimedia.
What really happens when employees participate in Books@Work? While participants tell us that getting to know their colleagues and sharing perspectives is the number one reason they enjoy the program, what exactly does this collective reflection have to do with work? Especially when the texts we read are classic and contemporary literature in multiple genres and not business books?
In fact, the Books@Work texts create strong parallels and connections to experiences in the workplace, and these experiences emerge in the conversations in fresh and creative ways. For example, when reading Tana French’s Broken Harbor, a group of participants explored the relationship between a detective and his assistant to discuss issues of mentoring and coaching teammates in the workplace, and how to provide both positive and negative feedback. The book offered a spontaneous and novel means to reflect upon a workplace challenge that is otherwise hard to discuss, permitting contribution and insights from an array of participant experiences. Most importantly, the participants selected this particular workplace issue to reflect upon themselves, underscoring its relevance and resonance.
Recently, researchers at Harvard, UNC and HEC Paris sought to understand John Dewey’s well-known assertion, “We do not learn from experience… we learn from reflecting on experience.” Their goal: to study the ways in which reflecting on workplace experiences–whether as individuals or in groups– improves performance.
Their findings (working paper available here) offer strong evidence that we should all spend more of our time in reflection – especially at work. In a lab setting, participants were asked to solve several puzzles, write brief (and in some cases shareable) reflections on their strategies, challenges and solutions, while a control group did the puzzles without reflection. On a second set of puzzles, the reflecting participant groups showed an 18% improvement over the non-reflecting control group.
In the field, the researchers asked employees in a large Indian company to spend 15 minutes a day personally reflecting on their work experiences, some alone and others with colleagues. Again, the results pointed to the benefits of reflection. Carmen Nobel, senior editor of HBS Working Knowledge, summarizes:
Over the course of one month, workers in both the reflection and sharing condition performed [22.8 and 25 percent] better than those in the control group… This was in spite of the fact that the control group had been working 15 minutes longer per day than the other groups, who had spent that time reflecting and sharing instead [emphasis added].
Observing the study’s outcomes, one of its authors, Francesca Gino, commented, “When we fall behind even though we’re working hard, our response is often just to work harder. But in terms of working smarter, our research suggests that we should take time for reflection.”
These findings on the unique relationship between reflection and work underscore the value of sharing literature in the workplace. The experience of work (both individual and collective) triggers the opportunity for reflection, and the shared book and seminar provide the vehicles for participants to share and deepen those reflections. As several Books@Work participants have told us, “I saw myself in this book.” What better way to set up a rich context for tackling the issues currently on our minds?
But Books@Work goes beyond providing an opportunity to practice reflection. By developing the seminar over sustained periods of time (3-6 months, if not longer), the program develops habits of reflection and the communities to continue to share these ideas. The seminar provides the space to slow down, reconsider and reimagine the workplace, in reflective – and apparently productive – ways.