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Jul 20, 2021

Is Your Over-Reliance on Self-Reflection Hurting Your Team?

Written by: Jeff Kotz & Victor Bilgen



Leaders have become too focused on internal reflection at the expense of communicating effectively with others.

In order to truly focus on a single target—such as a personal or team goal—you have to sacrifice your attention to other priorities. Over the past year, McChrystal’s Team Science practice has partnered with groups that have struggled to make these tradeoffs while managing geographically dispersed hybrid teams. Through our Leader Behavior Diagnostic, we’ve consistently seen that leaders put a stronger emphasis on internal, self-developmental behaviors, often at the expense of communicating effectively and integrating the perspectives and feedback of others.

Since March 2020, we have seen a noticeable increase in employees focused on seeking the most efficient ways to work at the expense of effective communication.

We’ll begin by exploring some of the root causes of this tradeoff, the detriment it can have on both leaders and employees, and finally the steps leaders can take to address these challenges in the current environment. To do so, we’ll look at the challenge through the lens of a recent healthcare client, where leaders focused on self-reflection and internal, self-development behaviors – at the expense of influential communication with their peers.


Leaders and employees struggle to adapt their behaviors to the new environment.

We can view a leader’s inward focus on their own behaviors as a function of adjusting to the new normal – a physical shift from the shared office to the home office and the resulting physical distance from those you lead. Though new communication forums and tools like Slack or Microsoft Teams helped fill some of the gap, norms governing their usage and informal conversation still lagged behind.


This is challenging for employees because they lack the context and ability to prioritize effectively.

As an example, say you are a relatively new employee and receive a chat message. Lacking both the context clues of face-to-face interaction and the examples set by others in an office environment, you now have to understand not only the explicit ask of the chat, but also attempt to deduce the implied urgency and formality of the ask. This lack of norms around digital communication has increased the burden on employees, creating ambiguity that requires energy to resolve.

From our analysis of a recent healthcare client, we discovered that their leaders often communicated without understanding the context of their employees, or failed to clearly communicate their own context. Self-reliant employees burdened themselves determining the timing of their responses: if their manager needed a decent answer now, or a better one later. Any subsequent reprioritization demanded additional investment of energy and focus. Quick messages, though productive, lacked the color and clarity to help employees be optimally efficient, adding another challenge to working remotely.

Of the 43% of leaders who relied on these introspective behaviors, none also prioritized understanding others’ perspectives.

Poor digital leaders slow their teams down because they fail to consider, “just because I have instant access, should I use it?” and, “if I do use it, how do I communicate clearly and concisely what I am asking?”


This means leaders are acting without relevant information.

In the case of the previously mentioned healthcare client, this had consequences. Poor digital communication obstructed employees’ abilities to extract key information. We found that their leaders continued to put more emphasis on their own self-reflection, instead of seeking to leverage the insights and expertise of their networks. Because leaders weren’t communicating effectively down to their teams, they weren’t receiving effective communication back up from employees on-the-ground.

Leaders that were too internally oriented didn’t leverage the information and capabilities of their employees. In a situation fraught with volatility, complexity, and uncertainty, these introspective leaders were actually exacerbating the uncertainty by failing to take advantage of the information their teammates directly possessed.

Of the 50% of these healthcare leaders who prioritized self-reliance, only 8% made decisions with limited information or stayed productive in volatile, complex, and ambiguous conditions.


This problem is fixable.

Fortunately, this challenge has a solution: leaders must reorient themselves to view their objectives as a team and communicate as such. We worked with the client leaders to develop a roadmap for external disambiguation, shifting their problem orientation from “my” obstacle to a challenge “our” team is resourced to solve. Further, we recommended that leaders reconsidered what is most important to be a successful digital leader.

A strong digital leader should communicate with context: a higher quality message improves connectivity more than a quick one does. This leader must have visibility on their direct reports’ priorities and can make requests with proper context in a more appropriate medium (such as an e-mail or project channel.) When that context is not available, efforts should still be made to seek it; failure to do so results in the aforementioned reprioritization delays.

This does not simply mean that you provide excessive detail when proving an ask. As a leader, given your visibility of your team’s priorities and the organization’s larger strategy, it’s incumbent upon you to be intentional when disrupting workflow. If you are making something a priority for a member of your team without helping them deprioritize something else, you are creating a decision for them to make.

When that employee has unclear decision space, the burden of your disruption creates more work than just the request. If you have decided that something must be done immediately, you should also provide guidance on how the requested task actually gets completed.



Ultimately, self-reflection is an admirable quality but sometimes it’s not the right tool for the problem set. Digital leaders should leverage self-reflection to tailor their communication and make their requests more intentional. If digital leaders are not going to be disciplined with their use of instant messaging, they should at least assume that every message they send will require its reader to invest in listening and reflection. For everyone, self-reflection should not be a substitute for context-seeking.