Reflective Inquiry and Action – A Model for Leadership Inquiry

confusedOne of the most effective ways to create a learning organization is to model it. When leaders are faced with the “Oh, no! I have no idea what to do because I’m confused” moment, they often respond in a reflexive manner, trying to preserve their authority, meet the communities broader expectation of “leadership” and ultimately “save face.” In Embracing Confusion: What Leaders Do When They Don’t Know What to Do, Barry Jenz and Jerome Murphy propose a 5 step model – Reflective Inquiry and Action (RIA) – which leaders can utilize to approach the “Oh, no!” situations reflectively rather than reflexively.

As the authors assert in the article, the RIA model is “deceptively easy to describe but remarkably hard to practice” since the actions required of the leader are often counter-intuitive, challenging personal and community assumptions of what a leaders should be and how he or she should act. There is a lot more nuance in the presentation of the model in the article than is outlined here, so definitely dig into it if the model intrigues you and you decide to apply it to your own leadership practice.

Reflective Inquiry and Action “These steps are presented as a sequence, but in practice their implementation should be seen as flexible and opportunistic.”

Step 1: Embrace your confusion. “Acknowledge that you are confused and that you see this condition as a weakness.” Additionally, you may need to reminder yourself, “Leadership is not about pretending to have all the answers but about having the courage to search with others to discover solutions.”

Step 2: Assert your need to make sense. State firmly that you are at a loss. “Before I can make a decision, I need help in understanding this situation and our options for dealing with it.”

Step 3: Structure the interaction. “Without skipping a beat, you must next provide a structure for the search for new bearings that both asserts your authority and creates the conditions for others to join you. You provide such a structure by stating the purpose of the joint inquiry, offering a set of specific steps or procedures to fulfill that purpose, providing the timetable, and identifying the criteria and methods by which decisions will be made.” By doing so, you will tacitly send the message, “To be confused is not incapacitating. I may not know what course to take, but I know the next step. I know how to structure a process that we can go through together to make sense of our new situation and move forward. In other words, you announce that you are metaphorically asking for directions but that you are still in charge of a process that will produce a clear outcome.” This is the step where the leader walks a fine line between asserting control of the process while inviting others to be open and honest in the problem-solving changes.

Step 4: Listen reflectively and learn. As the leader, you reflect thoughtfully upon what you have heard and then reflect your understanding back to the speaker. The speaker then has time to respond to your understanding, providing clarification or affirmation. The challenge, especially with those who do not listen well, is to not reflect their reflexivity. Reflective listening will build trust for joint problem-solving; reflexive listening will shut it down.

Step 5: Openly process your effort to make sense. After listening to what others have to say, process your thinking out loud. The authors suggest you resist the temptation to process privately and then announce the results of that processing. Instead, you must “externalize your intellectual process.”

The RIA model provides structure for a leader to stay on the path of reflection and inquiry instead of a knee-jerk, top-down, solo response to challenging situations. Reading this article was affirming for me as I often find myself in a system that pressures leaders into quick answers and away from inquiry. Even when there is a constrained time-frame on a less than clear-cut decision, it is important for the leader to be self-aware, slow down the process and engage others through inquiry. We should not be pressured into providing an answer when we are unsure and confused.

How do you typically lead in an “Oh, no!” moment? After learning about the RIA model, how might your process of problem-solving change the next time you are confronted with an “Oh, no!” moment?

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4 comments on “Reflective Inquiry and Action – A Model for Leadership Inquiry

  1. I had no idea that a model for such a situation existed, and I find it to be very interesting. So, thank you for posting about it! Even though these steps are not necessarily sequential, I wonder how many of us may find it difficult to get past the first step as this mentality calls for somewhat of a flattening of the hierarchy… It is fascinating how we can analyze so many different “parts” of the day.

  2. That’s a good point to note that hierarchy plays a role when deciding to invoke a model such as this. I find the model to be helpful when I find myself in these kinds of situations where people want an immediate, knee-jerk response/reaction. I find that I have become much more self-aware in responding to those situations.

  3. This is a model, which I intend to practice immediately. I have found it difficult to respond to those questions that teachers and/or parents want answers to immediately. I have learned the hard way to “buy some time” by telling them that I’d need to talk with the administrative team and then get back to them. This model will bring confidence to my responses because there is a thoughtful plan to reach a conclusion. I have also learned that invoking a little time between the question and the answer can also diffuse some of the emotion that might be present. Thank you for bringing this to my attention!

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