Humans generally have a more action oriented or reflective style. Action-oriented people prefer to take action and tend to make quick decisions — and are happy to do so without all the information available. Reflective people, however, prefer to pause, take stock and collect data until they’re sure they’re making the right decision. These are natural styles, but if you are a leader, which one is best for today’s leadership environment?
Action-oriented leaders optimize for delivery and speed over quality. That’s not to say they don’t value quality; they just believe that speed is more important. This makes them highly productive. However, it can be problematic, especially if their compulsion to act means that work has to get redone or there are errors to correct.
The challenge for action-oriented leaders is their belief that they must get the job done quickly. They move too fast sometimes, and often start things without considering the consequences or get caught up in the illusion of action which is in fact just a lot of random activity. This means that colleagues can view them as impulsive and disorganized.
Unlike action-oriented leaders, reflective leaders believe that it’s more important to get it right than to get it done. They gather data and information to figure out the different options. Only after the alternative options are weighed against the other, are they ready to act. Reflective leaders can be logical and thoughtful, but sometimes there is no “right answer,” or there are time sensitivities to consider. In these situations, they can be seen as moving too slowly and can often be perceived as indecisive or flaky. Their behavior can lead to delays and bottlenecks, causing problems across the organization.
Can Leaders Be Both Reflective and Action Oriented?
You might ask which leadership style is best? Surely, leaders need to be both reflective and action oriented. Not necessarily. In the study we conducted when writing “Real Leaders,” we anticipated that the leaders we researched would be more skewed toward the action orientation than the general population, as that style appears to be more coveted in many organizations. However, we were surprised to discover that the leaders profiled were more reflective.
The key is for leaders to understand their preference, and to know when the situation might need them to shift their behavior and surround themselves with people who can mitigate for their drive toward one style with the other.
As a leader, how aware of you of your own preference for action-oriented or reflective leadership? Think about times when your preference has worked and when it hasn’t. Ask your colleagues for their feedback.
Try and stretch your own style.
The sweet spot for adopting a successful leadership style is to be able to move outside of your comfort zone when needed. This doesn’t mean you need to overhaul your approach to leadership. In fact, little tweaks in behavior make a huge overall difference.
If you are more oriented toward action, try to pause for 10 minutes before jumping to reply to that email, or ask yourself what information might improve the quality of what you’re currently managing or working on.
If you are more oriented toward reflection, try making earlier decisions, on small or low-risk things initially. Practice by making quick decisions on things that can be later unwound if they turn out to be wrong.
Work on your own emotional regulation.
Sometimes, leaders’ ability to take a reflective or action-oriented approach is driven by panic or paralysis, which can exacerbate any downsides of your natural style. Thus, emotional regulation is key in putting your leadership style into practice effectively. If you are calm and thinking clearly, your drive to act or need to reflect is more likely to yield good results.
Communicate your preference clearly to those around you.
You don’t need to wear a badge signifying your leadership style, but you can explain your natural desire to act or reflect to your team members and colleagues.
People will often communicate with you based on their own preference for action or reflection. If you are frustrated that people are presenting you with a long story and lots of data when you want short, sharp options and a solid recommendation, they need to know that. Or, if you’d like a more detailed analysis that can help you make a more informed decision, your people need to know that, too.
Build your team with people who have the right kind of preference for the role they are in, and make sure you have a mix of both.
Some roles more naturally suit an orientation for action or reflection. Teach employees to respect the benefits of each other’s preferences and learn how to work together and collaborate effectively. There will inevitably be tensions, but working through them will improve outcomes — and ultimately save everyone time and energy in the long run.
Remember that whilst surrounding yourself with like-minded people may avoid conflict, it will also lead to blind spots. The best leadership style is not one or the other, action oriented or reflective, but is the ability to work on yourself, communicate your needs clearly and build a team that will help mitigate the downsides of your preference.
Overall, leaders are at their best when they are being themselves, not acting as some kind of corporate robot. We are all human. By stretching yourself a little, and respecting the different strengths of your team members, it’s possible to adopt a leadership style that balances both reflection and action in a way that supports the needs of your team and, ultimately, the business.