How to Practice the Art of Stepping Back

Being absorbed in our work is a good thing in many ways, certainly better than feeling disengaged or distracted. Getting into the flow of our daily tasks is energizing. It helps us get our work done with a certain degree of efficiency and effectiveness. 


At the same time, we are so busy – going from meeting to meeting, email to email, emergency to emergency –  we can easily lose the larger perspective, fall into automatic reactions, and miss opportunities to be truly proactive. An IT Director who attended one of our Leadership Agility Change Labs told us that she was a key leader in a change initiative that was foundering, because they had not adequately engaged with the project’s stakeholders. At the time, they felt they didn’t have time for real stakeholder engagement. But plunging ahead had caused even more delay in the project. It had also reinforced a siloed culture and already strained relationships. 


Even when leaders make an effort to secure stakeholder buy-in, they can end meetings with stakeholders thinking they have real commitment to support an initiative, only to be surprised later when the commitment turns out to be lukewarm. Stepping back to engage fully with stakeholders can be critical to your success. 


The accelerating pace of change in the global economy directly impacts the pace of change in our workplaces. Another deep, global trend is increasing interdependence. To get things done these days, we increasingly need to work with various kinds of stakeholders, as in the example just cited. These deep trends are powerful forces that can easily “pull us out of ourselves.” Our attention can become so absorbed in reacting to the kaleidoscope of events around us that we have little left attention over to step back and reflect on what will work best for ourselves and others in the short and long term. 


Our research for the book, Leadership Agility, found that the core capacity of highly agile leaders is the ability to step back from what they are doing on a regular basis, gain a larger perspective, then bring the resulting insights with them as they re-engage in action. As you grow in your capacity to step back in this way, your perspective broadens and deepens, and you become more adept at reflecting and course-correcting in the moment. 


Anyone can develop their agility (their ability to deal effectively with rapid change and interdependent relationships), but it requires regular practice. You need to practice “stepping back” from what you’re doing on a regular basis. When this kind of practice really gets going, you’ll feel more resilient and less at the whim of external events. 


At ChangeWise, when we work with leaders, we help them bring about significant changes in their organization, develop highly cohesive teams, and get more out of “pivotal” business conversations. At the same time, we help them develop a more proactive, fluid practice of stepping back and re-engaging in action. In this way, they not only get important things done, they also develop their own leadership agility and increase the agility of their teams and organizations. 


You can find your own way to develop a more proactive practice of stepping back to reflect on your experiences and anticipate events. Blocking bits of reflection time on your calendar can make a big difference. To mention just a few possibilities: 

  • Some leaders find it helps to arrive at the office an extra 15 minutes early and use this time to think more strategically about their day.

  • You can make lunch appointments with trusted colleagues to help each other think through the best approach to challenging conversations.

  • You can take 10 minutes at the end of the day to reflect in a journal. 

  • A number of leaders have established a practice of taking 5-10 minutes at the end of key meetings to check in with their team about what went well and what could be changed to make future meetings more effective. 

At ChangeWise, we’ve used our research on Leadership Agility to create specific tools and methodologies that help leaders, teams and organizations become more agile by practicing the art of stepping back to more consciously understand and respond to the challenges and opportunities before them. 


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