Critical reflexivity…hmm…what’s that? Sounds complicated. I was re-reading one of my favourite books, An Invitation to Social Construction (2009) by Kenneth Gergen this morning which introduces this concept with the following explanation:
‘Critical reflectivity is the attempt to place one’s premises into question, to suspend the ‘obvious’, to listen to alternative framings of reality and to grapple with the comparative outcomes of multiple standpoints…this means an unrelenting concern with the blinding potential of the ‘taken for granted’…we must be prepared to doubt everything we have accepted as real, true, right, necessary or essential’.
I find this interesting, stimulating and exciting. It’s about journeying into not-knowing, entertaining the possibility that there could be very different ways of perceiving, framing and experiencing issues or phenomena. It’s about a radical openness to fresh possibilities, new horizons, hitherto unimaginable ideas. It’s a recognition that all assumptions and preconceptions about reality could be limiting or flawed.
I’ve found this critical reflexivity principle invaluable in my coaching and OD practice. How often people and organisations get stuck, trapped, by fixed ways of seeing and approaching things. The same cultural influences that provide stability can blind us to alternative possibilities. The gift of the coach or consultant is to loosen the ground, release energy and insight, create fresh options for being and action.
It certainly resonates with my reading of the gospels. Jesus Christ had a way of confronting the worldviews, traditions and apparent ‘common sense’ outlook of those he encountered in such a way that often evoked confusion, anger or frustration. It’s as if he could perceive things others couldn’t see. He had a way of reframing things that it left people feeling disorientated. He operated in a very different paradigm.
This is one point at which spirituality meets philosophy and psychology. I too get easily trapped in my own constructs so I pray to God to open my eyes, to reveal new insights and unrecognised opportunities. Jesus’ words speak to me with renewed impact. He came ‘to proclaim freedom for prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, to set captives free.’ It’s about fresh awareness, deep liberation and a renewed life.
Do you work in organisation development (OD) or human resources (HR)? Or do you work in leadership and management and feel curious to know what these fields are, what they cover and what the differences are between them? Do you feel confused by distinctions when, after all, they are both concerned with human aspects of organisations? I will attempt to introduce both fields below and to explain common focus areas, differences between them and what kinds of people tend to be drawn to them.
What is OD?
OD is a broad field of thinking and practice. Different organisations use this term differently, to mean different things. OD practitioners often have a psychological and systemic orientation and focus their attention on areas such as leadership, culture and engagement. They are interested in questions like, ‘what human-related factors are influencing this organisation's success?' ‘why are things as they are?’, ‘how could we be more innovative or effective?’
Their core skills include relationship-building, questioning, reflecting, influencing, reframing and sense-making. OD practitioners are often found working alongside top teams, providing internal consultancy, guidance and coaching. They aim to raise awareness, stimulate fresh ways of thinking, challenge the status quo, build capacity for the future, enhance organisational experience and effectiveness.
Key words associated with this field: e.g. strategic, leadership, culture, values, relationships, teamwork, engagement, inquiry, challenge, opportunity, influence, concept, change, innovation, dynamics, perspectives, reframing, sense-making, capacity,
learning, development, impact.
What is HR?
HR is a fairly well-defined field of thinking and practice. Different organisations use HR in different ways. As a general principle, however, HR practitioners often have a legal, policy and process orientation and focus their attention on areas such as employment and performance management. They are interested in questions like, ‘what staff resources do we need?’, ‘how can we attract, recruit and retain the best people’, ‘how can we ensure people perform well?’
Their core skills include relationship-building, influencing, applying legal/policy frameworks and assertiveness. HR practitioners are found operating at a number of different levels. These range from HR strategizing through business partnering through policy implementation to payroll. They aim to ensure that staff resources are well deployed and that people are treated fairly and consistently.
Key words associated with this field: e.g. employment law, policy, structure, competencies, jobs, talent, contracts, frameworks, staff, recruitment, selection, contracts, management, performance, appraisal, reward, retention, employee relations, discipline, grievance, salary, payroll, benefits.
What do OD and HR have in common?
OD and HR are both interested in the relationship between people and organisations. They both regard people as a key contributor to an organisation’s success. They both have a humanistic outlook, an ethical belief that people should be treated
What are the differences?
It’s difficult to draw direct comparisons and contrasts because OD practitioners work mainly as coaches and consultants to leadership teams whereas HR practitioners operate at many different levels, ranging through strategic HR, business partnering and transactional-administrative tasks. However, there are some general common characteristics outlined in the table below, bearing in mind these vary from practitioner to practitioner and from organisation to organisation. These differences create potential for synergy and, sometimes, sources of tension.
OD practitioners tend to:
Work mostly with leaders and leadership teams.
Focus on teams, groups or the organisation as a whole.
Locate the origin of issues in the organisation as a human
Strive to retain a degree of detachment to see things others
Pay attention to broad themes, issues and trends.
Question, challenge or reframe the status quo, to see and do
Work on initiatives with different client groups.
Work as coaches, consultants or facilitators, building others’
Focus on psychological aspects of leadership.
Spend relatively high amount of time on developmental, future-orientated initiatives.
Have a reflective, intuitive, conceptual orientation.
Have professional background/studies rooted in leadership,
learning and social sciences.
Feel comfortable with questions, ambiguity, uncertainty and
HR practitioners tend to:
Work mostly with managers and staff.
Focus on individuals and their immediate line relationships.
Locate the origin of issues in the individual or his/her
Strive to become embedded to engage with others in their
Pay attention to immediate tasks, issues and demands.
Seek to standardise policies and practices to ensure greater
Work long-term with the same client group.
Work as business partners or service providers, ensuring good delivery and practice.
Focus on practical aspects of management.
Spend relatively high amount of time on remedial, problem-solving activities.
Have a practical, rational, technical orientation.
Have professional background/studies rooted in employment law, policy and practice.
Feel comfortable with solutions, clarity, certainty and
What could a typical OD role look like?
This varies from role to role and organisation to organisation. In my own experience, I've been responsible in OD roles for strategy and change, values and culture, leadership and management development, staff and team development, internal communication and staff engagement, performance management and development. However, the following are common:
Develop effective leaders and leadership teams through coaching, consultancy and facilitation.
Support effective change leadership through providing guidance and building leadership capability.
Work alongside leaders to develop an inspiring, engaging and effective organisational culture.
Create leadership development opportunities (e.g. seminars/training, mentoring, action learning).
Oversee the L&D function, focusing on management, staff and team development.
When does OD work with HR?
OD and HR practitioners most commonly work collaboratively in areas including the following:
Change leadership and management.
Performance management and development.
Talent management and development.
Induction and training.
If you've had different experiences of OD and HR, or hold different views about what they are and the differences between them, please do share your views here too! I would be interested to hear more.
Who or what has most influenced your OD thinking and practice? What maxims or principles do you bear in mind as you approach organisational issues from an OD perspective? Someone asked me this question recently and I crystallised my response into seven statements, drawing on background influences including Morgan, Schein, Bolman & Deal, Gergen and Burr:
*Organisations do not exist but people do.
*Every action is an intervention.
*Actions have symbolic as well as rational meaning.
*What’s important is not what happens but what it means.
*The same event has different meanings for different people.
*People get trapped in their own psychological and cultural constructs.
*What passes for rationality is often irrationality in disguise.
These statements, taken as a whole, create a metaphorical lens through which I often view, analyse or interpret a situation or experience. They help me to consider an underlying question, ‘What is really going on here?’ before attempting to work with a client or organisation to devise a way forward. What maxims or principles do you use to guide your practice?
Do you ever find yourself talking at cross purposes with a client, resulting in bemusement, confusion or frustration? I met with a team recently to explore their work with others. I noticed how they would sometimes describe themselves as a ‘service function’, a title that implied and created a specific type of role and relationship in their own minds as well as in the minds of others.
As we explored the nature of their work in more depth, it became clear that they aspired to relate to clients as business partners, not simply as service providers. In fact, they already relate to clients in a number of different modes but they hadn’t yet stopped to reflect on and articulate this clearly. As they moved between modes implicitly rather than explicitly, it risked confusion.
We separated the modes into a conceptual map, drawing this on a flipchart with ‘quality and accountability’ as an overall goal. Sometimes they operated as consultants, helping others to think through, understand and do things well for themselves. Sometimes they operated as co-leaders, running joint initiatives, events, projects or processes in collaboration with others.
Sometimes they operated as service providers, providing information, advice or services or doing specific tasks on behalf of others. Sometimes they operated in governance mode, ensuring that clients are aware of and adhere to legal, policy and agreed good practice. The trick as a business partner is to navigate between modes according contextual opportunities and demands.
It’s one thing to feel clear about your own role and chosen mode in a particular situation yet important, too, to ensure the client is also clear. One way to do this is to pose a simple question: ‘This is how I see my role and your role in this situation. Is that how you see it?’ Posing the question in this way opens the possibility for discussion, clarification and negotiation.