The value of reflection

Think about a project that didn’t go the way you planned. How did you handle it? What about a time you were on a team that didn’t work well together. Was the team able to accomplish its goals? What role did you play? Think of a time you failed at something. What was it? What did you do? What’s the hardest piece of professional feedback you’ve received? Why was it so hard to hear?

Sound familiar? If you’ve ever been interviewed or conducted an interview, you’ve probably heard or said something like this. We ask these questions on interviews because we want to see how people react when things don’t go as planned. Are they reflective when they fail? Do they own up to their own mistakes? Do they learn from them and do things differently because of them?

I’ve read several articles recently that advocate moving away from ‘tell me about a time…’ interview questions to ‘what would you do if…’ questions. I’m a fan of this. When a candidate tells us about something in her past, we can’t know the entire context. But when she talks through how she would do with a new challenge, we get a sense of how she thinks and her approach to the work. It allows the candidate to take those past experiences and use them to create something new, which is what we want. We see what she’s capable of, not just what she’s done.

However, there is still huge value in asking someone to reflect on past experiences, especially experiences that were frustrating or didn’t go well. How someone frames their story tells us a lot about how they think of themselves, their work, and their relationships. I personally don’t want a candidate to spin everything to a positive. I want candidates who can own their own weaknesses – it tells me they are self-aware. I would never toss out every ‘tell me about a time’ interview question; I want something more than what someone did. I want what they learned – how it changed them.

Just last year I was on the other side of the table, sharing my stories of failures and what I’ve learned from them, and it was a valuable experience. Interviewing forced me to take time and reflect on things that I’ve done well in my career, and things that I didn’t do so well. Today I’m in a job I love, with no thought of ever interviewing again, but I want to retain that sense of reflection. When a project or interaction doesn’t go the way I thought, I want to make sure I’m reflecting, learning and growing. Our successes spur us on to greater growth, but our failures should do the same.

We ask candidates to reflect, and we should spend time in reflection ourselves. As HR, how can we be the guide for all employees in accepting feedback and learning and growing from failure? How can we better create a culture that welcomes feedback and reflection, seeing the strength it takes to own our mistakes and become better people, creating a better workplace for everyone?

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