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Reflective Thinking for Leaders

Updated: Feb 27, 2023

What is Reflective Thinking and Why is It Important?

Reflective thinking, also known as mentalization, is the process by which we perceive and infer the intentions of others as we observe and communicate with them. This includes verbal (what they say) and non-verbal (how they say it) communication. Based on our perceptions, we draw inferences or conclusions about what the other person means and what their intentions are. Because people can't read each others' minds, these exchanges are full of ambiguity.

This "grey" zone is highly prone to thinking errors, such as making incorrect

assumptions about what others mean and their intentions. Even when we are trying to be objective, there is an inherent subjectivity in this process, leading to the risk of reacting rather than responding.

Accurate mentalization depends on our capacity to reflect on self and others.

​Good reflective capacity

Poor reflective capacity

Lays down memories of shared meaning (being on the same wavelength) - whether there is agreement about the issue or not. This develops trust.

Increases the potential for tunnel vision, groupthink, irrational decision-making, poor teamwork, low morale, resistance to change and deadlocks

The process looks like the model below:

Reflective thinking is a deliberate process that involves several skills:

  • Suspending judgement and maintaining an inquisitive stance

  • Maintaining in-the-moment awareness of yourself and the other person

  • Recognising your own and the other person's emotions

  • Recognising the interplay between your emotions, values and cognitions (thoughts, beliefs, goals, desires, memories)

  • Asking clarifying questions and seeking feedback

Leadership Effectiveness

Because so much of leadership is about communication, reflective thinking is crucial to being effective. The benefits include:

  • greater self-awareness

  • greater sense of personal agency and confidence to manage ambiguity

  • accessing awareness of "what you don't know that you don't know", leading to creative solutions to problems

  • increased empathy

  • greater co-operation and creativity

  • less stress

  • increased resilience


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