Reflecting on Work Improves Job Performance

New research by Francesca Gino, Gary Pisano, and colleagues shows that taking time to reflect on our work improves job performance in the long run.
by Carmen Nobel

Many of us are familiar with the gentle punishment known as "time-out," in which misbehaving children must sit quietly for a few minutes, calm down, and reflect on their actions.

New research suggests that grown-ups ought to take routine time-outs of their own, not as a punishment, but in order to improve their job performance.

“Our work shows that if we'd take some time out for reflection, we might be better off.”

In the working paper Learning by Thinking: How Reflection Aids Performance, the authors show how reflecting on what we've done teaches us to do it more effectively the next time around.

"Now more than ever we seem to be living lives where we're busy and overworked, and our research shows that if we'd take some time out for reflection, we might be better off," says Harvard Business School Professor Francesca Gino, who cowrote the paper with Gary Pisano, the Harry E. Figgie Professor of Business Administration at HBS; Giada Di Stefano, an assistant professor at HEC Paris; and Bradley Staats, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina's Kenan-Flagler Business School.

Pausing to reflect on our work improves job performance.
Photo: iStockPhoto

The research team conducted a series of three studies based on the dual-process theory of thought, which maintains that people think and learn using two distinct types of processes. Type 1 processes are heuristic—automatically learning by doing, such that the more people do something, the better they know how to do it. Type 2 processes, on the other hand, are consciously reflective, and are often associated with decision making.

Essentially, the researchers hypothesized that learning by doing would be more effective if deliberately coupled with learning by thinking. They also hypothesized that sharing information with others would improve the learning process.

Reflection, Sharing, And Self-efficacy

For the first study, the team recruited 202 adults for an online experiment in which they completed a series of brain teasers based on a "sum to ten" game. A round of problem solving included five puzzles, and participants earned a dollar for each puzzle they solved in 20 seconds or less.

After recording the results of the first problem-solving round, the researchers divided participants randomly into one of three conditions: control, reflection, and sharing.

In the control condition, participants simply completed another round of brain teasers.

In the reflection condition, participants took a few minutes to reflect on their first round of brain teasers, writing detailed notes about particular strategies they employed. Then they, too, completed a second round of puzzles.

In the sharing condition, participants received the same instructions as those in the reflection group, but with an additional message informing them that their notes would be shared with future participants.

Results showed that the reflection and sharing group performed an average of 18 percent better on the second round of brain teasers than the control group. However, there was no significant performance difference between the reflection and the sharing group. "In this case sharing on top of reflection doesn't seem to have a beneficial effect," Gino says. "But my sense was that if the sharing involved participants actually talking to each other, an effect might exist."

Next, the researchers recruited 178 university students to participate in the same experiment as the first study, but with two key differences: One, they were not paid based on their performance; rather, they all received a flat fee. Two, before starting the second round of brain teasers, they were asked to indicate the extent to which they felt "capable, competent, able to make good judgments, and able to solve difficult problems if they tried hard enough."

As in the first study, those in the sharing and reflection conditions performed better than those in the control group. Those who had reflected on their problem solving reportedly felt more competent and effective than those in the control group.

"When we stop, reflect, and think about learning, we feel a greater sense of self-efficacy," Gino says. "We're more motivated and we perform better afterward."

A Field Experiment

The final study tested the hypotheses in the real-world setting of Wipro, a business-process outsourcing company based in Bangalore, India. The experiment was conducted at a tech support call center.

The researchers studied several groups of employees in their initial weeks of training for a particular customer account. As with the previous experiments, each group was assigned to one of three conditions: control, reflection, and sharing. Each group went through the same technical training, with a couple of key differences.

In the reflection group, on the sixth through the 16th days of training, workers spent the last 15 minutes of each day writing and reflecting on the lessons they had learned that day. Participants in the sharing group did the same, but spent an additional five minutes explaining their notes to a fellow trainee. Those in the control condition just kept working at the end of the day, but did not receive additional training.

Over the course of one month, workers in both the reflection and sharing condition performed significantly better than those in the control group. On average, the reflection group increased its performance on the final training test by 22.8 percent than did the control group. The sharing group performed 25 percent better on the test than the control group, about the same increase as the reflection 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.

Gino hopes that the research will provide food for thought to overworked managers and employees alike.

"I don't see a lot of organizations that actually encourage employees to reflect—or give them time to do it," Gino says. "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."

About the Author

Carmen Nobel is the senior editor of Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.
    • mike flanagan
    • purchasing mgr, retail grocery
    I believe that you basic premise is very correct and on the mark. If we all took our breaks, to review our actions and then combined these thoughts with our commute to and from work, culminating on a complete review on the weekend, we all would be improving our job, our performance and the increase of wisdom to our co-workers.

    As in KM, you start small with data points combined with some information to formulate over all knowledge of our job or function. This in turn would be passed on to our co-workers as wisdom of the whole job or company.

    This reviewing and combining of thoughts will improve your actions on the job and even in your personal life.
    • Eric Budd
    • Improvement Coordinator, Peaker Services
    The Plan-Do-Study-Act cycle provides a structure for learning by reflecting on the outcomes of work (small tests) compared to expected results. Our people use this work-reflection cycle to intentionally explore better ways to do work.
    • Bryan Pett
    • Principal, Pett & Associates
    It would be helpful to understand in what way reflecting increased self-efficacy (what did these people think about that led them to become more motivated with improved performance results?).
    Were questions posed to the test subjects or was a structure provided for context to assist their thinking processes (or did they reflect without any external direction)?
    Did their motivation inspire them to work more efficiently rather than just working longer on a task, or did their reflection enable them to discover better methods for doing their work?
    Did the time the subjects spent reflecting allow them to better understand, internalize and apply the new learning?
    Lastly, has there been any follow up to see if this effect is sustainable, or is it possible this is more of a "Hawthorne effect" situation?
    • Tibebu Mengesha
    • Manager Marketing & Sales, National Cement Share company
    There is a saying in Ethiopian society "Le And Afta" Ebako meaning that for "A Moment "please. After some hard work that is being done for a while by a group they say let us have a break for a moment. Within that period of" Le And afta " they will think of what they had done and how to continue the way forward. Its a very interesting study carried out it gives a momentum for the next performance after a short break of "Time Out" I will use it effectively
    • Chris Lyons, CPA
    • Project Lead, Syntax Core Business Services, Inc.
    Taking reflection to the next step beyond a self-oriented approach to where the reflection data is compiled and compared between the group participants reflective responses will identify common similarities and differences. The common similarities would be useful as a formalized document for others in the organization to read. This produces two results. First, some one might not have thought of one of the common similarities in the document that is beneficial to their productivity. Second, sharing this type of information is good for organizational morale because it creates a sense of togetherness.
    • Andrew
    • MD, Independent
    Thanks for the insights on improving individual performance through reflection. The same almost certainly applies to teams. I worked for a company where it was standard practice to reflect on meeting effectiveness at the end of each Executive meeting (we ran a $3bn+ enterprise). This made a clear and substantial positive difference to the efficacy of our meetings over time.
    • Peter Lee
    • Mg Consultant, RDS
    Interesting. Partly common-sense also.

    When workers are asked to reflect on their work, it is tantamount to empowering them to participate in a way that recognises their individuality & contribution. And when they share this unleashes further creativity & commitment.
    • Hugh Quick
    • home, none
    So, thinking about how you might do things better is called 'research' now.
    • L Tierney
    • Teacher of Business
    At a time when educational institutions are working to bring "real world" business concepts to the classroom, it's ironic that business is only now learning what educators have known for decades. Jean Piaget said it well - "students don't learn by doing, they learn by thinking about what they are doing."
    • Michael Massey
    • Doctoral Student, University of Georgia
    This is true in spades for educators, PK-20. The bureaucratic demands on teachers' and professors' time are extensive and unrelenting, as the authors will know from personal experience. PK-12 teachers, especially, are given extraordinary responsibilities for children's learning, growth, and development, yet they (teachers) are generally allowed no professional time to reflect about either their classroom efforts or their own professional development.
    • Signe Spencer and Ruth Malloy
    • Senior Consultants, Hay Group
    These constructs appear similar to David Kolb's work on Learning Styles. Was this built on his work?
    • Lolly
    • Social Media Manager, TalentCove
    I absolutely agree that it's important to take time out of our days at work to reflect on what we're getting done and what we may need help with.

    That's what we're all about at TalentCove. We believe in empowering the individual to track and share their progress (and hurdles) in order to promote open communication, collaboration and success among teams.
    • Venkat Ram
    • Master's Student, IIT MADRAS
    Can you elaborate on these:

    1) Does the nature of problems that are used to test problem solving capacities (in this instance, 'sum to ten game') have any influence on the outcomes of the study?

    2) How have you controlled for the potential confounding factors, like for instance variation in cognitive styles etc?

    Thank you.
    • Otto C. Frommelt
    • Senior Advisor
    Thank you for sharing your research. Reflection is a must to enhance the performance and improve the process, but without the openess for learning, reflection is not enough.
    • Forget About It
    • Sales, GFS
    Sorry, but how is this anything new? I remember reading a book over 20 years about taking time to "sharpen the saw". Heck, one can just sit down and just read Proverbs!
    • Lawrence Selvanayagam
    • Consultant
    Reflection it must be emphasized should be accurate. Reflection should aid action, not impede it. Disciplined and accurate reflection is what needs to be done to improve performance at all levels. When you cram your schedule invariably reflection takes a backseat. We have to schedule breaks so as to use the breaks productively.
    • martin portillo escapa
    • public service, Organismo Aut?nomo Programas Educativos Europeos in SPAIN
    Of course, reflection and sharing are good for knowledge, because the power of judgment can be regarded either as a mere faculty for reflecting on a given representation, in accordance with a certain principle, or as a faculty for determining an underlying concept through a given empirical representation. In the first case it is the reflecting, in the second case the determining power of judgment. But reflecting in our case requires a principle as much as does determining, in which the underlying concept of the object prescribes the rule to the power of judgment and thus plays the role of the principle. Is this principle taught at HARVARD?
    • Kanchi N. Gandhi
    • Sr. Nomenclatural Registrar, Harvard University Herbaria
    I agree with the article's conclusion that "Reflecting on Work Improves Job Performance." However, I do not consider it as a "new" concept. Prior to coming to USA, I was teaching in an undergraduate college in India for 8 years (1974-82). After each class, I took time to think over the presentation of the lecture content and explored the way to enhance the quality of the lecture for the next class. Because of my aptitude for excellence in teaching, I was respected as one of the best among the faculty. In my present job, I have been doing nomenclatural analysis for professional botanists, and after each analysis, I take time to think over it and change my conclusion, when needed.
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private Limited
    This is something which does not need to be debated. A mere common sense approach for if we do not spare some time to reflect on the quality of our performance, we would not be on a growth path. It is essential to make an objective self-review to find if our approach has been as per the expectations and the set goals. If not, correctives can be applied and better results achieved in future.
    • Janet
    • Spanish Teacher
    This is a question about Tibebu posting. I tried to look for the Ethiopian society "Le And Afta" Ebako meaning that for "A Moment ". I was curious about and did not find more information on the web. Thanks
    • Patrick Kua
    • Principal Consultant, ThoughtWorks
    Thanks for sharing your research and the article. I find that both reflection at the individual level and the group level are very powerful. We use Retrospectives as an activity to bring together different sources of information at the same time for complex activities in order to learn and improve. I look forward to reading the final paper.
    • Mark C
    • Senior Manager, FedEx Express US OPS
    Plan/Communicate/Execute/Review.......this promotes continuous improvement. If we are not doing this as a normal process; we may not be realizing our full potential and adding stress to the team. In today's environment , it is a must!
    • DrAJaganMohanreddy
    • associate professor, IPE,HYDERABAD
    My mantra for the business management students is Read,Reflect and Relate. First they need to understand the concepts, then reflect upon them about the relevance etc and then relate to the ground realities. Similarly it's good for the employees as well to reflect and it definitely helps.
    • Rohini kappadath
    • Director cross border business, Pitcher Partners
    Valuable insights in this article. Reflection should become a part of our daily practice in life.
    • N.R.Jothi Narayanan
    • HSE consultant, private
    The concept of "Reflection on your job will improve your performance" is not a new one. But in the present world of fast track achievement, a Time out to the employees by the employer, Teaching faculty to the students etc.will increase the output with perfection.
    I would like to refer the famous 'Time Out" for a day given by Lord Rama to King Ravana in the battle field when the latter had been disarmed, anticipating that there will be a change in his mind and course of his (Ravana's) action by the process of reflection on his act.
    Infact Reflection is a individual process and Time out could be a individual or involving more than one.
    N.R.Jothi Narayanan, Palakkad,India.
    • Jon B. Bosco
    • Member, SBODN
    If Meditation in general has proven to make our life a better one, to reflect about our daily works and our job in particular should help us to do the right things right, therefore to be effective, therefore to keep the right track and make amends about any mistakes and omissions of ours.