Thinking about how we think

Just recently a number of managers and consultants have made a point of telling me that they don’t read much around the work that they are doing. They tell me they are practical people. Sometimes they are the same managers who also find it difficult to find time to sit down with their staff to reflect on what it is they are doing together. If they invite me to join them when they do find half a day, or a day (rarely more than this) there is often much talk about how this is a ‘luxury’, how we really need to make this time count, how we need to be sure that this isn’t just a ‘talking shop.’ Even reflective time has to be oriented towards ‘outputs’ or ‘results’, without there being any clear idea about what a result might look like.

It makes me wonder what it is that managers, and consultants, think it is they are doing when they are rushing around not thinking or reflecting on what they are doing, when they are in a hurry to ‘deliver’ things. In the office of a CEO I visited the other day I saw this notice: “If you think everything’s under control then you’re not moving fast enough”. Perhaps this partly explains the ubiquitous catch phrase “going forward”, used in a sentence like this: “what we need to focus on, going forward…” Everything is future-oriented, always going forward to an idealised future, delivering things, never looking back.

The pragmatic philosopher George Herbert Mead,writing at the beginning of the 20th C and drawing on others, put forward the idea that what makes us uniquely human is our ability to take ourselves as an object to ourselves. In other words our emerging sense of self continuously comes up against our sense of a generalised other, or idea of what others would think of us. We do not simply act in the moment, but are able to contemplate how others see us acting. This ability both to be an agent and understand ourselves as an agent is what separates us from most animals: it is how self-consciousness arises in our interactions with others. We are able, to a degree, to detach ourselves from our involvement.

Being able to reflect on what it is we are doing, how we are acting, is a powerful way of seeing. When we undertake this exercise with others, when we reflect together on what we are doing and why, it can create opportunities for renewing our faculty of judgement. When we come back to ourselves, when we are reflexive, we are practising what it means to be uniquely human. Being able to draw in others into the process, even if it means drawing in their thoughts through their writing, adds another interpretive voice. There is the potential for even greater refelction. We are often not the first to be struggling with what perplexes us, and there are many others who have gone before us who are waiting patiently at the end of the dark corridor while we fumble our way forwards to catch up with them.

If managers and consultants do not take time to reflect on what they are doing, with others, present or present in their writings, what is it that they are doing? Could we not make a case that this is precisely the job of managers, to think, to encourage reflection, to research, to continuously call into question what it is we are doing together. A good manager, and a good consultant, is not necessarily one who knows, but one who is curious, and one who encourages that same curiosity in others. A good manager is someone who encourages their colleagues to think about how they are thinking.

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