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Using Reflection to Transform the Public Sector Workforce

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By April Townsend
April 28, 2023

There’s one thing we can always count on while working in public administration and that’s change. At any given time, we’re juggling changes due to new legislation or budget cuts. In years with an election, we often see changes in elected officials or top administrative leadership who have priorities or initiatives they want the organization to pursue. In this environment, a team’s ability to change and adapt is critical. But it isn’t always clear or obvious what to adapt to.

In the face of uncertainty, it’s tempting to look back on what’s worked in the past as a template. While there is certainly value to be gleaned from past experiences, relying only on experience quickly provides diminishing returns. You can’t learn what needs to change by simply doing more of the same thing.

What Needs to Change?

The question we need to ask is: How can we improve until we understand what we need to improve on? Consider dancers and professional athletes. Professional dancers practice in front of mirrors, using their reflection to provide immediate feedback on where they need to adjust. Athletes, particularly those who are a part of a team, will gather after a game to watch film and reflect on what worked and what didn’t work. This period of reflection often provides valuable insights on what needs to change in order to improve.

A benefit of team reflection is that it enhances the human connection that comes from learning together. This approach can improve accountability, enhance practical application and help learning stick. As a collective activity, team reflection turns the evaluation of a shared experience into learning by transforming personal insights into knowledge that can be applied to future desired behaviors or processes.

An additional benefit of team reflection is the opportunity to learn more about yourself as a leader. When a team is reviewing a recent project, you can use it as a chance to learn if there are areas where the team needs your support whether through direction, additional training or resources or help navigating organizational politics or policies.

Why the Reluctance?

Given the potential benefits, why aren’t teams doing more intentional reflection? Well, quite frankly there’s a lot going on. We’ve learned to keep our heads down and focus on our individual and collective to-do lists, moving from one priority to the next. Without a bit of encouragement, it can be difficult to disengage from a productivity mindset.

Case in point, a recent estimate showed that workers in the United States give up over 200 million vacation days annually. And when we do go on vacation, many of us continue to work. This continual drive to take action makes the idea of slowing down to process lessons learned seem unnecessary and even wasteful. 

Other reasons for not reflecting may be that we’re not sure how to reflect or we’re uncomfortable with what we may learn. Yet there are substantial benefits to be had when a team has incorporated reflection into its natural flow of work.

Guiding a Team Reflection

One of the most natural ways to introduce team reflection is after completing a project or major task. Such milestones are built-in opportunities to explore what’s been learned or how the team is feeling. When done consistently, reflecting can strengthen your team’s effectiveness by learning and adapting more quickly.

If this is something you’d like to try, ask your team how they would like to approach a shared reflection. They may prefer a free-flow approach to explore insights and action steps. You could also jointly create a “Stop/Start/Continue” matrix. Another option is to provide a template that asks the team to first individually identify what they felt worked and what they would change, and then bring the group together to share their responses. The goal is to reflect as a group on what was accomplished and whether it had the desired impact. Possible questions to guide a team reflection could include:

  • What worked?
  • What could be improved?
  • What alternatives might we have tried?
  • What did we do that helped further…?
  • What additional skill development or training do we need?
  • What did we learn and how can we apply that going forward?
  • What are we still unsure about that may warrant additional information?
  • What options do we see for the next time we encounter this situation?


Jack Mezirow, the founder of transformative learning theory, said, “Without reflection, there is no learning.” Developing your team’s ability to learn through reflection works best when focused on identifying and then incorporating solutions. Start by carving out a dedicated time to reflect, remembering to be gentle with yourself and others. The goal is to think both big and small, looking at any challenges as a chance to learn, along with plans to improve. There is almost always a benefit to taking time to reflect. Like a mirror—it can provide timely feedback for needed change.

Author: Dr. April Townsend worked in local government for over 30 years, holding a variety of executive leadership and management positions. She is currently owner of Townsend Consulting, LLC, providing leadership coaching and organizational consulting services and is a Research Fellow with the Utah Women and Leadership Project. She can be reached at April@ Townsend.Consulting.  Twitter handle: @AprilT2014

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