Reflexivity: enabling systemic change in an unequal world
"There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning."
— Warren Buffett
Reflexivity is a term usually applied in certain types of research, and very commonly in certain branches of social and behavioural science.
It can be viewed as the process of becoming aware of the layers of our own influence on our work and our external impact, whether that is in research, or also in leadership, consultancy, coaching or facilitation. Reflexivity helps practitioners enable both personal and social transformations.
In this post I will explore how and why reflexivity is important in a world currently riven by deepening inequality, and crisis.
Last weekend I watched the documentary film based on Thomas Picketty’s book, ‘Capital in the 21st Century’. This film is evocative, making use of multiple sources of footage extremely skillfully to tell a powerful story about inequality. Unlike the book, it does not drown in data.
The story is naturally one-sided but not polemic. I found it difficult to disagree with the thrust of its argument: wealth and income inequality within many developed countries is dangerous and unsustainable. With possible mass unemployment just around the corner, it made me feel very uneasy. I do not want millions of my fellow citizens to feel threatened or disempowered.
Picketty suggests that our current conditions have some frightening similarities to the state of politics, economics, and social trends before the onset of the first world war. Exaggeration? Sensationalist speculation? I hope so.
‘Spirit Level’, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, is another book on the deep ill-effects of inequality, that I have found very thought provoking. There is enough data on social and economic inequality to force me to consider how, and whether workplace psychologists can, and should try to improve the situation.
In considering this, my mind turns to the need for reflexivity.
Reflexivity requires a person, team, or group, to examine their own feelings, reactions, and motives for acting in the way they do, as well as underlying value systems. This raises awareness and accountability for how their thoughts, feelings, values and behaviour are affecting others, and the performance of the system they sustain.
Reflexivity is relevant to anyone working as a helper or leader. This goes beyond analytical reflection on what is being experienced in a process or achieved in a task. Such analytical reflection is relatively superficial, albeit necessary.
The kind of personal reflection people can do on formal leadership programmes, or with coaches may be too brief, too temporary, too narrow, and not honest, deep, challenging, systemically connected, or sustained enough to constitute reflexivity. Certifications in coaching and leadership training courses tend to focus more on teaching simple formulas, models, tools, and techniques than on exploring underlying values and developing in-the-moment self-awareness.
In coaching conversations, we help clients confront increasing complexity in every domain of work and life, rather than to solve problems. This requires us and our clients to be honest with ourselves, and each other, about our situation, abilities, and zone of competence.
Leaders who are unable to acknowledge or deal with complexity and who are insufficiently reflexive can be a liability. The handling of the pandemic might give us all some very public examples of this insufficiency, and the societal risk it represents. The first ‘Presidential debate’ in the US last week was, unfortunately, devoid of reflexivity. Political leadership discourse in the UK is similarly subpar. Poor quality public discourse in the UK and US is increasingly a zero-sum game with zero net-benefit, and possibly enormous social costs.
The connections with inequality and its effects are profound and worrying.
Extreme pay distance and perceived inequity are known to create conflict between different parts of a population and within a workforce. This pandemic is exposing systemic unfairness and inequality with painful acuity. As the UK’s Mental Health Foundation has noted in a recent report on the impact of C-19 on mental health, the data shows a divergence in peoples’ experience depending on their social and economic context. The report points out that ‘we are all in the same storm, but we are not all in the same boat’.
The early notions of organizational hierarchy, and transparent, meritocratic systems of management, such as Elliott Jacques’ ‘requisite organization’, had fairness, and effective use of peoples’ differing talents in mind. The pioneers in my field would surely have balked at the extreme social and financial Darwinism we can see in organizations today.
There is an urgent need to tackle short-termism and a hyper-competitive, power, status, and winner-takes-all mindset in business and politics that has contributed to incredible concentrations of wealth. Given their scale, reach, and maturity, the consulting, coaching, executive education, and training industries have arguably become part of the problem.
My own challenge is to make a healthy enough living from being a psychologist in business without being a slave to the business of psychology.
Gaining the trust of senior executives, to understand my clients’ context, needs and challenges, enables impact. Doing so while maintaining clarity of purpose and sufficient integrity requires me to be reflexive, and to support reflexivity in leaders and organizations.
What does reflexivity mean to you?
What role does reflexivity play in leadership, change, coaching, and consultancy?
See also -
Alvesson, M. & Skoldberg, K. (2009). Reflexive Methodology: New vistas for qualitative research. London, UK: Sage.
Bager-Charleson, S. (2014). Doing Practice-based Research in Therapy: A reflexive approach. London, UK: Sage.
Bushe, G.R. & Marshak, R.J. (Eds.) (2015). Dialogic organization development: The theory and practice of transformational change. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
Mental Health Foundation (2020). Coronavirus: The divergence of mental health experiences during the pandemic. Available at https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/coronavirus/divergence-mental-health-experiences-during-pandemic .
Noffke, S.E. (1997). Professional, personal and political dimensions of action research. Review of Research in Education, 22(1), pp. 305–343. DOI: doi.org/10.3102/0091732X022001305
Picketty, T. (2014). Capital in the 21st Century. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press.
Wilkinson, R.G. & Picket, K. (2009). The Spirit Level: Why greater equality makes societies stronger. New York, NY: Bloomsbury.
My books are available on Amazon:
Strive: Unlocking agility and unleashing talent in a digital world
Change Agility: Leadership, transformation and the pursuit of purpose