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Reflexive Reciprocity you cannot lead until you honor your followers

by Mark P. McDonald  |  November 5, 2009  |  8 Comments

Leading beyond tomorrow requires more than managing change.  It requires building people’s ability to change and that is the difference between change management and change leadership.  One of the techniques for leading beyond tomorrow I learned from Michael Doyle who unfortunately passed away in 2007 and is the author of Making Meetings Work.

Reflective reciprocity sounds like a complex process – perfect for a consultant – but its pretty straight forward.  The principle is this:

You cannot lead people to a new future, until you understand their shared history by honoring their past.

The reflective part concentrates on understanding peoples past.  Allowing them to reflect on their history, their accomplishments, the events and stories you allow them to tell you what makes them who they are.  By listening and paying attention, you show your interest and give that past value.

The reciprocity part is the implicit promise that if you listen to who I am, then I will be willing to listen to you about how we move forward together.  Building from that shared past you can now take the organization forward.

Applying reflective reciprocity

Apply reflective reciprocity in workshops, focus group or even 1:1 interview situations.  The technique is simple.

  • Let people know that you are interested in understanding the company, their role, their successes and how they overcame challenges.
  • Hold a session to discuss the current context and invite people who are the key influencers of company culture and experience.  If everyone listens to bob, then make sure bob is there.
  • Start the meeting by asking the group to share their successes going back over a period that is at least equal to the duration of the change initiative.  A one year change initiative probably involves going back 3 – 5 years, a three year change go back 10 years.
  • Sit back and listen, ask questions, seek stories and show people that you want to understand who they are and how they got to where they are today.

Two other things I have experienced using this tool.  First the farther back you go in terms of understanding the history the farther forward the group is willing to go in envisioning the future.  The other point is that the deeper the analysis you do of the past – the more radical the audience is willing to be about the future.  The combination of honoring the past and understanding it sets the stage for innovative and forward leading thinking.  The graphic below illustrates this concept:


Where to use reflective reciprocity

Reflective reciprocity works because you first seek to understand who they are and why they are that way.  This understanding matters in situations where there is a deep resistance to change based on one of the following situations:

  • A historically successful company that is facing new challenges.  For example traditional market leader facing the need to change.
  • A company with experienced and deeply tenured employees who have a vested interest in the current state.  For example a public sector agency or not-for profit.
  • A company with culture based on consensus and group decision-making.  For example a company moving from decentralized business units to centralized operations or shared services.
  • A company facing the need to make deep changes in its culture and business model.  For example a products company extending their model to include services.

I have found reflective reciprocity particularly effective in situations people are heavily invested in past success and any change represents an implied threat to themselves or more importantly their beliefs and assumptions.

Reflective reciprocity demonstrates that you are interested in who they are and you are willing to take the time to understand them before you look to change them.  It also can create recognition that things need to change without every having to talk about the ‘burning platform’.  Here is how.

As people discuss their past, their successes and their accomplishments they will invariably recognize things that did not work so well.  While these will elicit a chuckle or a ‘remember when …” they remind the audience that everything was not perfect and that there is a need for change.

Effective leadership requires more than a vision of the future it requires an appreciation of the past.

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Category: change-on-the-cheap  leadership  tools  

Tags: business-leadership  change-leadership  leadership  tool  tools  

Mark McDonald, Ph.D., is a Vice President and Fellow Emeritus in Gartner for General Managers Program.

Thoughts on Reflexive Reciprocity you cannot lead until you honor your followers

  1. Karyl Owings says:

    I once used this technique effectively kicking off new change initiative in a company I had recently joined, but found that I had to be careful to rein it in when necessary. Some people can get stuck in the historical reflective exercises, and churn almost to the point of becoming depressed about what didn’t work. When I saw this risk looming, I had to declare us all “healed” so that we could move on. A good lesson learned for me!

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Greg Lambert, bmqmen. bmqmen said: Reflexive Reciprocity you cannot lead until you honor your followers: A company with culture based on consensus.. […]

  3. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by markpmcdonald: Reflective Reciprocity a change leadership tool for every executive a description at

  4. Mark McDonald says:


    Thanks for your comment and sharing your experience as this brings the idea to life.

    You raise a great point in that people can dwell on the past too much.

    Honoring the past does not mean reliving it and the purpose of knowing where you came from is so that you can go someplace different together in the future.

  5. […] One tool that can be helpful when you are new and the ‘stranger at the top’ is something called reflective reciprocity, particularly in an IT organization that is proud of what it has done in the […]

  6. […] sense of where we need to go by thinking about where we are now and how we got here.  This type of reflective reciprocity  should lay the foundation for a positive and action oriented discussion.  Here are the proposed […]

  7. […] experience ledger becomes a form of reflective reciprocity, a common grounding point that recognizes and honors the past in order to create a desire to more […]

  8. […] creates an event that people talk about more than a change in what people do.  In this case use reflective reciprocity to honor past practices, allow people to remember the good, bad and the need to move […]

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