Narcissus, Batman and Ubuntu: lessons in self-reflection

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Almost without warning, we are into the last few weeks of the year.  This is often a time when companies review the year and consider how to do things better as they plan for the year ahead. Company leadership and staff, too, may be engaged in formal appraisals and informal conversations focussed on improving their personal contribution and leadership impact at work.

We often call this process “self-reflection” without thinking very much about what the term means. It might help to improve the outcome if we thought a little bit about what we are really trying to achieve beyond just “thinking about things” which is an unstructured, and usually unhelpful exercise.

“Reflect”, and “reflection” are amongst several English words which mean one thing, and its opposite.  On the one hand, to reflect is literally to send back (as in reflecting light or an image). However, it  also means to look inside oneself or to look deeply into a question.  Exploring the different meanings of the word may help us to reflect more effectively.

First, we might learn the lesson of Narcissus.  The Greek legend tells of the beautiful young hunter who callously rejected all suitors including the nymph Echo who fell in love with him.  His unkind rejection of her led her to pine and fade away until she was nothing but a voice in the woods, repeating the words of others.  Narcissus was punished for his cruelty by Nemesis, the goddess of revenge.  Hunting one day, he stooped to drink from the pond and fell in love with his own reflection.  When he tried to drink, the picture disappeared.  He could neither move on nor drink and eventually faded away himself – dying of thirst in one version of the story.

One lesson from this myth is that having either too little self-esteem (Echo) or an excess of self-love (Narcissus) can be fatal to living successfully in the world.  Another is that staring endlessly at our reflection does nothing to enhance our understanding of ourselves or our ability to be effective in a world in which we are defined by our interactions with others.  It follows, ironically, that if we want to reflect on ourselves and our leadership impact, we need first to know how others see us.  We need to see ourselves reflected in the images that others have of us, and that is determined by their daily experience of us.  To quote a much more modern legend: in Batman Begins (2005), Rachel Dawes says to Bruce Banner: “Deep down you may be the same great kid you used to be.  But it’s not who you are underneath, it’s what you do that defines you.”

To learn how others experience what we do, however, we need some help.  We can just ask people of course, but there are two problems with this.  The first is that we need to know exactly what it is that we should ask.  The second is that both colleagues and (particularly) direct reports, may have good reason not to be entirely honest in their reflections.  Colleagues may simply not want to “rock the boat” in their relationship, and direct reports may well be anxious about the effect of giving critical feedback to those who have substantial power over their life at work and indeed their careers.

A 360° assessment, properly done, addresses both these difficulties.  Constructed with both deep experience of the world of work, and with psychological insight, the questionnaire will ask a wide enough range of questions of all respondents to give a well-rounded picture (reflection) of how they experience you at work.  Secondly, the anonymity allows them space to consider the answers and for a level of honesty you are unlikely to experience if you ask the same questions face to face.  The self-reflection comes not from looking at ourselves in the mirror or the pond, but by seeing ourselves reflected in the responses of others.  This is the essential lesson of Ubuntu: a person is a person through other people.

There is another feature of 360° assessments that is important to consider.  We are seeing ourselves reflected in several other people’s responses, rather than just one person’s view.   And usually it becomes clear that we look quite different in different people’s eyes.  On the one hand this may be disconcerting and poses the question: “who (or where) am I in all of this?”. On the other hand, it should be quite comforting, because it frees us from the obligation of trying to be exactly the same person for everyone we work with.  We learn that is impossible, because everyone will have a different image of who we are.

In this perspective, self-reflection becomes an exercise in using the reflections from many different people as data with which to look at ourselves and how we want to be defined.  We learn useful things about how people experience us. We could be both pleasantly and unpleasantly surprised.  And it is from these surprises that we may choose how to respond, what changes we wish to make, and what resources we have that can be deployed to effect those changes in impact.

When I am giving feedback to managers who have undergone 360° assessments, I regularly have to reinforce the idea that you do not have to try and improve your rating in every behaviour, or even each category of behaviours.  Your real job is to respond to Rachel Dawes’ implied challenge to Bruce Banner: which qualities do you want to show the world?  And what should you do from day to day in order to bring those qualities to life?

The personal development plan that emerges from this process should identify two or three areas where you want to change how people at work experience you, and a few challenging but attainable steps to be taken in order to achieve those changes. And, over time, you should seek feedback (literally reflections) from others as to how they now experience you.

Most of the time we go about our business looking at the world through the eyes of the person we are.  Self-reflection is a way of creating an image, or multiple images, of who we are by asking others.  We can look at those images thoughtfully, with a view to changing some of how we appear to others.  We achieve this by changing how they experience what we do.  However, we will get nowhere by either just staring lovingly at ourselves as Narcissus did, or by giving others total power over who we are by becoming their Echo.

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