March 4, 2009

This technical note was written by Elizabeth A. Powell, Assistant Professor of Business Administration. Copyright 

2007 by the University of Virginia Darden School Foundation, Charlottesville, VA. All rights reserved. To order

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Most of us know that writing is a technology invented several millennia ago to aid memory,

but few consider how much writing—especially reflective writing—can aid creative and critical

thinking, particularly when leading organizational change. As Andrew Robinson has pointed out:

Writing is among the greatest inventions in human history, perhaps the greatest

invention, since it made history possible. Yet it is a skill most writers take for

granted.… As adults we seldom stop to think about the mental-cum-physical

process that turns our thoughts into symbols on a piece of paper.1

For anyone who is about to embark on organizational change, has the responsibility to lead it, or

needs to help others make sense of it, reflective writing can enhance and deepen your leadership


Low-tech as it was, writing initially solved a practical problem by rendering thoughts in a

permanent form, allowing them to be remembered at another point in time. Later, paper allowed

thoughts to be transmitted not only over time but also across distances. Today, electronic files and

instant messaging solve the same problems at much higher storage capacities and accelerated


For many of us, however, the proliferation of writing and media has created a new

problem—information overload—which can muddle our thinking and responsiveness to change.

Even under normal circumstances, the volume and speed of information cause the best leaders to

drown in data and decide in a daze; add organizational change to the picture, and problems

assimilating new information and making quick decisions are intensified by mixed emotions and

fears about uncertainty.

Fortunately, the same technology that can inundate a leader with information can also help

that leader emerge from confusion. The process of writing, and particularly reflective writing, has

an extraordinary capacity to aid creative and critical thinking and deal with complex emotions.

1 Andrew Robinson, The Story of Writing (London: Thames & Hudson, 1999), 7.

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Keep in mind that writers not only benefit from the products of writing—messages that can be

archived or transported—but also from its practice. Experientially, writing slows down thinking,

which can be especially valuable to anyone under the stress of organizational change. Jumbled

thoughts, images, impressions, and feelings, when ordered on a page as words, sentences, and

paragraphs, begin to make more sense; incrementally, they become stories that explain cause and

effect, arguments that discover logic in the midst of chaos, and analyses that provide for clearer


Through the process of writing, thoughts once held in relative disarray now appear

straightened out on the page. Further, as the writer becomes reader, thoughts appear at a critical

distance. Toggling back and forth from reader to writer—from objective to subjective

interpretation—one becomes freer to reflect on and refine thoughts, stumble upon unexpected

discoveries, invent new ideas and meanings, and solve problems creatively.3 Taken to yet another

level, reading your own writing opens up the possibility of also examining how you think in the

context of change, putting you in a better position to make adjustments as needed. Overall, writing

to reflect can transition a leader’s mind from the whirr and buzz of daily reactive thinking and

communicating to a mindfulness that welcomes the creativity and fresh thinking you need to lead


Getting Started with Reflective Writing

Most people who regularly practice reflective writing develop habits and rituals that keep

them going. At first, finding a time and space that work for you may seem the biggest challenge.

The good news is that you don’t need a lot of time at one sitting. Writing in 10- to 15-minute

increments can actually be quite productive. It does help, however, to give your full attention to

the task, so help yourself concentrate by closing your office door, turning off your cell phone,

going out to a coffee shop, sitting in the park, or using a little idle time on the train. If possible,

take your writing time-out at the same time each day. Some people enjoy writing in the morning

when they feel rejuvenated from a good night’s sleep. Others prefer to write before going to bed

to clear their minds so they can fall asleep.

Many people prefer to keep a journal rather than use a PDA or computer. Writing in

longhand slows your thinking and stimulates the brain differently than typing does. If fancy

journals are intimidating, use an ordinary spiral notebook. Conversely, if a fancy journal inspires

2 For research on the mind-body benefits of reflective writing, see James W. Pennebaker, Opening Up: The

Healing Power of Expressing Emotions (New York: Guilford, 1997) and Stephen J. Lepore and Joshua M. Smyth,

eds., The Writing Cure: How Expressive Writing Promotes Health and Emotional Well-Being (Washington, DC:

American Psychological Association, 2002).
3 For more on critical thinking, see Richard Paul and Linda Elder, Critical Thinking: Tools for Taking Charge of

Your Professional and Personal Life (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Financial Times/Prentice Hall, 2002).
4 For more on mindfulness, see Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in

Everyday Life (New York: Hyperion, 1994).

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you or helps you take the task more seriously, by all means, use the fancy one.5 If your thinking is

coming in bursts, and unspooling thoughts sequentially seems to interrupt your flow, try jotting

ideas on index cards or sticky notes first. Spatially arranging these bits of thought later may help

you transition into prose as you feel ready.

If you’ve never tried reflective writing before, just the thought of it might give you writer’s

block. “What am I supposed to write about?” “Gee, that page is awfully blank; how am I going to

fill it up?” “I’m a lousy writer, and it’s hard work. Maybe I could start this tomorrow.” To counter

these inhibiting thoughts, decide to turn off your internal editor. Instead, practice free writing, a

technique in which you write nonstop for several minutes without any interruptions. Just write

whatever you are thinking, even if it is something nonsensical—such as “I don’t know what to

write, I don’t know what to write, what shall I write?”—until you break through to another thought.

Concentrate only on the thoughts that come up in the present moment and ignore or suspend that

internal editorial voice that may plant seeds of doubt. This technique can be good training for more

formal writing, too, because it encourages you to separate the creative process of drafting from the

critical process of editing.

Applying Reflective Writing to Leading Change

If you need some prompts to get started on writing to reflect about leading change, here

are some ideas, in no particular order. Pick one, try it, and see what happens. Adopting an

experimental or playful attitude toward your writing, thinking, and reflecting will help.

 Figure out the whole story—Someone once said, “when you see something you don’t
understand, you probably don’t know the whole story.” Reflective writing can help you

imagine and fill in missing data in your understanding of a person, situation, or problem.

Ask yourself, what story helps this make sense? Consider whether others would tell the

story differently. What could you do about any gaps you find?

 Try and test new ways of thinking—In the safety of your journal pages, you can try out and
test new ideas without fear of the social consequences. This can be liberating and help you

become more imaginative and innovative in a situation in which you feel stuck. Use a lead-

in such as, “What if?” to get yourself going.

 Vent, then problem-solve—Journal writing is a great way to dump anxiety, frustration, and
anger. Not only do you not have to deal with anyone’s reactions, but the process can be

enormously cleansing, clearing space for more effective problem solving. It may help to

separate the two tasks. Vent first, take a break, then come back to write in a more

constructive, problem-solving frame of mind.

 Rehearse or review difficult conversations—Sometimes change-oriented conversations
can happen so quickly that they deserve more thought than there is time for in the moment.

5 For a leather-bound guided journal aimed specifically at reflective writing for executives, see Peter Drucker and

Joseph Maciariello, The Effective Executive in Action: A Journal for Getting the Right Things Done (New York:

Collins, 2006).

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This document is authorized for use only by Rosendo Ramos in EMGT 6010 UPDATE-1-1-1-1 taught by STEPHEN FLAHERTY, Ohio University from Mar 2021 to Sep 2021.

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Use your journal to rehearse and/or review difficult conversations. When rehearsing, write

out how you would like to open a conversation, thinking about what you want to say, then

reflecting on how that might be received. Modify your approach if necessary to fit the

audience or situation. When reviewing, try to recount the actual words that were used. Then

go back and think about what each party heard when those words were spoken. What

helped or hindered real communication?

 Keep records—Your journal may be used to keep notes on strategic conversations, log key
change indicators, and report on experiments with change. Or pretend you are keeping field

notes the way a zoologist might observe animal behavior. Later you can analyze your

findings and look for patterns.

 Explore personal change—There is hardly an organizational change that doesn’t challenge
you to also change professionally and/or personally in some way. Use the journal to set

personal change goals, break them down into daily activities, and then track your ability to

implement the changes. Don’t malign yourself for missing a goal. Give yourself a pep talk


 Capture that thought—If you are like many people, ideas occur to you at almost any time
of the day, often while repeating some physical task—taking a shower, driving, exercising.

If you are one of those middle-of-the-night geniuses, keep your journal by your bedside so

you can jot down ideas and get back to sleep.

 List listening questions—Use your journal to collect questions that you hear when you are
on a “listening tour.” Or pose questions you want to ask others. Later review them, and

ask, “What seem to be the underlying concerns behind these questions?” “What do I need

to do in order to answer these questions?” If it’s helpful, attempt some of those answers in


 Imagine the possibilities—Use different symbol systems to imagine new ideas. Brainstorm
a list, write a compelling change story, sketch a process-improvement diagram, draw a

picture of the new product, or try some “back of the envelope” calculations.

 Do a SWOT analysis—Analyzing strengths, weakness, opportunities, and threats can be a
helpful method for making decisions and developing a message about change. Oftentimes

items fit in more than one column. Use your journal to construct arguments and decide

which items fit in which columns or think about how you have to refine your ideas to

differentiate shades of gray. During a change effort, you might want to do SWOTs at the

different personal, departmental, organizational, and competitive/market levels to look for

alignment and misalignment among them.

 Analyze the situation and key stakeholders—What’s the history of the situation? What’s
your diagnosis about what’s going on? How do you sort symptoms from root causes? How

do you know you have the right solution? How would others define the situation? Where

6 See Michael Marquardt, Leading with Questions: How Leaders Find the Right Solutions by Knowing What to

Ask (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005).

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are stakeholders’ opinions aligned or at odds? How can you overcome resistance? What

language is most likely to produce the change you seek?

 Practice self-observation—Use your writing to observe your own behavior. Examine your
reactions to a key event. What did you say and do? How did others respond to you? Chances

are you are getting a lot of feedback from other people and your environment all the time,

but you may benefit from being more mindful of it. Use your writing as a way to be more

present in the moment during conflict or when coaching others.7

 Persuade yourself first—Before you can persuade others, sometimes you have to persuade
yourself so you are clear about your objectives and the stakes involved. Tell yourself a

story that you can believe in or make an argument that compels you so you can have the

confidence to be a credible spokesperson for change.

 Play devil’s advocate—To debug your own thinking or the thinking of others, use your
writing time to poke holes in an argument. Or use the devil’s advocate to introduce a

healthy bit of skepticism or doubt into your thought process. Clear yourself of a rigid

mindset by arguing yourself into a new perspective.

 Clarify your objectives—What’s reasonable? In the abstract, you’d naturally want
everyone to be an ambassador or cheerleader of change. But if the change is unpleasant

(and most changes are on some level) what do you say? For example, during layoffs, you

can’t necessarily promise that everyone will keep their jobs, but you still need to say

something. Perhaps you can let everyone know that you’ll keep them informed as you learn

of new information, or that you promise to be fair and fight for everyone, given the

constraints in which you will need to operate.

 Anticipate conflict and negotiations—Identify each party’s position on an issue. Then
explore through your writing each party’s underlying interests. See if you can imagine a

way to break a stalemate between positions by inventing new solutions that might lead to

compromise or a win-win agreement.

 Frame messages—Re-read your entries and highlight phrases and words that you want to
use or avoid. Distill and synthesize a core message into a sound bite that you’ll repeat

throughout the change process. Try different framing techniques. For example, is this

change better represented as a “vision,” a “crisis,” a “transformation,” or a “natural


 Tell stories—Recall examples and stories from your experience and extract leadership
lessons. Spend some time generating alternative ways of expressing ideas. To add interest,

use concrete and vivid language. To make the messaging credible, think about how you

7 For more on self-observation and feedback, see Doug Silsbee, Presence-Based Coaching: Cultivating Self-

Generative Leaders through Mind, Body, and Heart (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008) and Marshall Goldsmith,

What Got You Here Won’t Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful (New York:

Hyperion, 2007).
8 For more on framing, see Gail Fairhurst and Robert Sarr, The Art of Framing: Managing the Language of

Leadership (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1996).

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This document is authorized for use only by Rosendo Ramos in EMGT 6010 UPDATE-1-1-1-1 taught by STEPHEN FLAHERTY, Ohio University from Mar 2021 to Sep 2021.

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might set an example or follow up the message with a tangible action that signals your

sincere commitment to change.9

 Outline next steps—Use the journal to list, draw, or write scenarios about next steps. Use
reflective time to ask questions about your first draft of next steps—are they solving the

right problem, what’s missing or needs to be taken away, how about the order? Then think

about the constituencies whose help you need—what will they embrace? What will they


 Contemplate your message platform—You will need to be your own PR consultant.
Suppose you’ve heard or come up with a persuasive or motivating message: how can you

develop it into a platform that you will refer to repeatedly? When and where will you tie

the message into your daily work? Which events might best communicate and personalize

the message for those who most need to hear it? How can you keep the message fresh even

if it starts to sound old to you?10

Make the Most of Your Reflective Writing

While writing to reflect has many virtues, there are a few caveats. Socrates said that the

unexamined life is not worth living, but the over-examined life isn’t worth living either. As you

write, be mindful of what you are doing and why. Recognize when you have reached a point of

diminishing returns; walk away from your writing if you find yourself over-analyzing a situation,

fixating on a detail, or obsessing about how you have been wronged.

Ultimately, as a souvenir from your time spent writing to reflect, bring the pearls of wisdom

you discover back into the world to help you lead change. Now that you have some thoughts on

paper, call on “the muse of the second draft” and translate your personal writing into

communications with others: conversations, memos, emails, presentations, meetings, and so on.

Completing this step will help you realize the real world value of your investment in writing to


Leading change is hard enough. But if you can’t focus because you are overwhelmed with

information and the tumult of change, you will have a hard time focusing other people’s attention,

too. So take some time out, write to reflect, and clarify for yourself and others what you want to

communicate and accomplish.

9 For more on storytelling, see Belle Linda Halpern and Kathy Lubar, Leadership Presence: Dramatic Techniques

to Reach Out, Motivate, and Inspire (New York: Gotham Books, 2003); Annette Simmons, The Story Factor:

Inspiration, Influence, and Persuasion through the Art of Storytelling (New York: Basic Books, 2006); and Stephen

Denning, The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling: Mastering the Art and Discipline of Business Narrative (San Francisco:

Jossey-Bass, 2005).
10 For more on message platform, see Terry Pearce, Leading Out Loud: Inspiring Change through Authentic

Communication (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003).

For the exclusive use of R. Ramos, 2021.

This document is authorized for use only by Rosendo Ramos in EMGT 6010 UPDATE-1-1-1-1 taught by STEPHEN FLAHERTY, Ohio University from Mar 2021 to Sep 2021.

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