The Map and the Territory: The Importance of Reflexivity

By Gustavo H. R. Santos

October 23, 2023

Article, De Pree Journal

I recently came across the work of linguist Alfred Korzybsky. Among many contributions to semantics, Korzybsky formulated a simple but powerful concept, arguing that “the map is not the territory.” In his metaphor, maps represent the mental models we create to describe territories that represent the realities or situations of life. Those mental models are perceptions that guide us in understanding the world, but they cannot embrace the complexities and nuances of what is going on from all possible angles. In practice, that means that every description we create about a given situation is essentially, well, incomplete. Including how we describe ourselves.

It doesn’t take much to realize that if the best we can do is to create a limited representation of the world, we need others to have a better picture of what’s going on around us and even within us. When leaders reflect on their actions, it is crucial to consider the biases they bring when they show up in the world. That means bringing one’s perspectives to a place where they can be examined and tested to form a more nuanced picture of a situation. The technical term here is “reflexivity.”

A Mirror for the Soul

Reflexivity is a concept I’m borrowing from the social sciences, and it involves examining the role and constraints of one’s perspectives when approaching a situation. In other words, it is about reflecting on how our subjectivity, biases, and preconceived notions can impact our interpretation of data and events.

Here is an example: Imagine that you are hiring for a position similar to yours in your organization. You look at your professional trajectory and see the marks of what made you great at what you do. You took risks, worked hard, and took opportunities strategically. That creates for you a “map” to find the ideal candidate. So far, so good.

The reflexivity exercise starts, and you might think of the conditions that allowed you to become who you are as a professional. Perhaps you had support from your parents to take risks earlier on; perhaps you had a spouse who held the fort at home so you could put more hours in; perhaps the opportunities you had came from friends or mentors who were happy to give you the chance they also had in the past. And the exercise could go on, but you get my point.

Now, imagine you’re assessing candidates with different backgrounds and experiences. You must consider how your own story shapes your evaluation of their career paths. Reflexivity helps you recognize and adjust for biases in your perspective, allowing you to make more informed, equitable decisions about what makes a good professional. That’s what reflexivity does, it calibrates our perspectives about the world.

Reflexivity is also a crucial component of loving one’s neighbor like oneself. More specifically, I would argue that leaders can create more inclusive and compassionate environments by reflecting on their own experiences and biases. The reason is that those in leadership often hold positional power; how they choose to use power matters.

A friend of mine, Katy Der, recently preached at her church a sermon on how Jesus used his power.[1] “Power used righteously,” Katy explains, “closes the gap between the parties.” Every interaction with Jesus is full of love and nuance. As a Jewish man, he exercised his power with a rare blend of empathy and sensitivity. He gauged people’s perspectives and adapted his approach accordingly, creating an environment where power was not wielded in a top-down manner, but rather collaboratively and inclusively. This helped to break down barriers and foster a sense of connection and mutual respect.

Think about it. The conversation with Nicodemus was different from the conversation with the woman at the well; Zacchaeus heard something from Jesus that was different from what Mary Magdalene heard in their interactions; the tone with the disciples was different from the tone with the Pharisees. There is always love geared toward transformation, but each time from a different relative position. Jesus knew who he was, but when interacting with people, he made sure to close the gaps so his interlocutors could be fully present, aware, and engaged, just like himself.

In her sermon, Katy gives an example of someone who could reflect on his positional power and act on it. She tells the congregation that one of her professors was part of the board of directors of a nonprofit and was trying to bring more diverse voices to the table. The other board members argued that the number of seats was limited, so there was no room for more people to join. The professor, a middle-aged white male, decided to resign so the board could bring someone able to represent a different demographic group. He gave up his positional power to close the gap. By relinquishing his position, he demonstrated a willingness to prioritize representation and inclusivity over his privilege.

Practicing Reflexivity

If leaders can practice reflexivity and calibrate their perspectives at each interaction, they will create more space for healthy relationships to grow and for people to flourish on their terms. Like everything else in life, it requires practice, but the good news is that once we start practicing it and we see things from different perspectives, we can never go back and think how we used to. Reflexivity paves the way for a constant expansion of our consciousness. Far from being a linear process, it requires many iterative steps. Here are some potential steps for you to try in your next interactions:

  1. Practice self-reflection. Take time to examine your thoughts, feelings, and actions to understand how they impact your decision-making and relationships. Even more importantly, try to identify and acknowledge your own biases and how they came to exist. Think of your socio-economic background, gender, ethnic heritage, education, circle of friends, religious beliefs, etc., and try to connect those to the ways you show up in the world.
  2. Embrace diversity. Surround yourself with people from diverse backgrounds and perspectives to challenge your assumptions and broaden your understanding of different perspectives. Avoid the trap of “pure objectivity,” as if one “universal” view of the world could be sufficient to explain everything. Remember that our personal experiences, cultural backgrounds, and beliefs influence our understanding of a subject. Acknowledging our subjectivity can foster humility and openness to other viewpoints.
  3. Seek feedback. Actively solicit feedback from team members, colleagues, and stakeholders to gain insights into your blind spots and areas for improvement. This step has the potential to cultivate empathy in all parties involved. Listen carefully to what others have to say about you and your ideas. The more we understand each other, the more nuanced our connections will be. That nuance has the power to ultimately deepen our love for God, for each other, and for ourselves.

Reflexivity plays a vital role in discussions that combine different perspectives by promoting self-awareness, empathy, and humility. It encourages us to recognize and account for our own biases and subjectivity, fostering more inclusive and informed conversations where diverse viewpoints are respected and considered. If done well, it makes it easier for others to engage in constructive dialogue without feeling dismissed or invalidated, which leads to better work and the building of better organizations.

In the social sciences, reflexivity is associated with the quality of a project, the skills of the researcher, and the credibility of the knowledge being produced. As we translate that concept into the language of leadership, it’s easy to see how powerful its practice can be. Indeed, the map is not the territory, but some maps are better than others.

[1] Katy Der currently lives in Calgary. She is an Asian Canadian woman who is interested in knowing how one’s ethnic background informs our experience in church.

Gustavo H. R. Santos

Affiliate Professor & Writer

Gustavo currently serves as an Affiliate Professor with Fuller’s Doctor of Global Leadership program. As a PhD candidate in Theology at the Vrije Universit...

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