“Reflexivity”

I know that many of us are weary about jargon, particularly management or organisation jargon. Hence I am nervousness about this post.

However, while they have the ability to put us off, new words can also potentially open up new vistas, meaning and possibilities. It is in this spirit that I introduce the term ‘reflexivity’.

I believe that ‘reflexivity’ is an important concept for anyone interested in exploring a more human or relational form of leadership and organising.

Here’s my take on what it means:

Someone is said to be ‘reflexive’ if they are able to notice the actions and reactions of self and others in relation to oneself, and to use these observations to guide and coordinate continuing conversation and future action. It is the ability to be aware of our ‘world-view’ and the impact/consequences of this in our interaction with others. In this sense, it is an appreciation that identities, relationships, and cultural practices are interconnected to our and others’ actions.

When we practice reflexivity we make choices about how we will think and act. We become responsible and accountable for our choices, our actions, and our contributions to a relational system. It is the ability to ask ourselves what kind of social world we are co-creating by the way we think, talk and act.

In his book “Making social worlds: A Communication Perspective”, Barnet Pearce, who I’ve had the great privilege of listening to, gave this example:

Arthur and John are fighting. Arthur may ask either linear or reflexive questions.

Linear questions:  How can I defeat John? How much will it cost me to defeat him? What resources do I have available to me? Is it in my best interest to risk these resources in order to beat him?

Reflexive questions: What kind of person will I become if I win this fight with John? Regardless of who wins, what kind of social world are we creating by fighting? What will it cost me if I defeat him? What will I miss most when the fight is over?

My friend, Kevin Barge, has helpfully suggested that reflexivity takes on three distinct forms:

(1) Descriptive reflexivity:  An explanation of the interrelationships among action, meaning, and context within a human system.

(2) Self reflexivity:  A discerning awareness of how one’s positioning within conversation has consequences for self and other, and

(3) Invitational reflexivity:  A form of conversational engagement that facilitates making self and others mindful of the purposes and consequences of their actions within a human system.

For me, the ability to be reflexive is key to becoming a ‘relational’ leader.

1 Comment

  1. I like this. In the world of coaching we have the idea of various levels of perception in a conversation: being myself in a conversation, putting myself in the other’s shoes, being aware of the whole environment of the room we are in, imagining myself as an observer to the conversation, recognising that different observers would notice different things, … (etc.) Your article seems to head off in another direction, which is about the value of the act of conversation (or fighting, or any other human interaction) as distinct from (say) being silent or not meeting up at all!

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