Reciprocity in organisational life

How this edition came about

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Anna Fairtlough
Erica Piasecka

Reciprocity in writing and editing

The ‘dance of reciprocity’ is a concept developed by Brazelton, T. et al (1974).  Based on observations between infants and carers, it proposes that human interactions typically involve stages of initiation, orientation, attention, acceleration, a peak of excitement, deceleration and withdrawal or turning away (see Figure 1 below).   Anna Fairtlough introduced the model at the Open Source Thinking (OST) 2016 Gathering (‘Healing for a Fragmenting World’) in Tostat, France (see MacKenzie et al, 2017, this edition).  Previous workshops, and two issues of e-Organisations and People (e-O&P Spring 2013 and Spring 2016) have explored the concepts and practices underpinning the Open Source Thinking Project, which is supported by AMED.

Anna had learned about the dance of reciprocity through attending training for practitioners working with parents and children and undertaking qualitative research on the usefulness of the way of working (the ‘Solihull Approach’) that was being taught.  One of these trainers, Dawn Cutler, explains more about reciprocity and its place within the Solihull Approach in the first article of this edition (Cutler 2017).  What Anna had learned while doing the research and listening to practitioners, people receiving services and managers, was that this model, and the idea of reciprocity more generally, can help us make sense of interactions not only in families but also between individuals and groups of adults in organisations and communities. Through the dance of reciprocity, trust, attachment and learning are fostered. Moreover, getting out of step in this dance, which is common, is not a disaster: it enables us to understand important things about ourselves and others, and to gain skills in repairing these ruptures.

An Anglo-French representation of ‘The dance of reciprocity’, al fresco flipchart, Tostat 2016.  Photo: Bob MacKenzie

Given the focus on connection and community in the OST2016 Gathering in Tostat, Anna thought that it would be a valuable tool for participants to use in thinking about how they wanted to be with each other and

what they wanted to do together during the event. And so it proved. The image here reflects many of the qualities embodied in the event. It is homemade and improvised. As it hangs on a washing line it reminds us of the everyday actions, such as washing, that we need to do to care for ourselves and others in our communities. The arc evokes the rhythms of daily life, of breath and of sleep and wakefulness. The processes depicted in the arc represent those that were used in collaboratively designing the event, of coming to various ‘peaks of excitement’ and then withdrawing from each other at the end. It is in two languages, French and English. It also contains mistakes: minor ruptures in communicating across difference.  For instance, Anna has misspelled ‘reculer’, which means ‘to retreat’ in French.

Bob MacKenzie, commissioning editor of e-O&P and one of the curators of the event, suggested that reciprocity might be a fruitful theme for further exploration of OST/praxis in the journal, and invited Anna to lead as guest editor. Together, Anna and Bob drafted the Call for Papers.  A while later, Erica Piasecka agreed to join the editing team. Erica is a student in her final year of a liberal arts degree in Maastricht.  Her impending graduation in the summer of this year brought with it questions of career prospects and, most of all, a desire to gain that most elusive of qualities for young graduates: experience. She has been interested in literature and writing from a young age, and publishing/editing is one possible path for her. So when the opportunity appeared to join the editing team of this journal, she jumped at it, reasoning that it would both allow her to develop her skillset and broaden her understanding of personal and organisational development. 

The editorial process itself requires its own dance of reciprocity as the editorial team concerts with each other and with the writers in a spirit of critical friendship (MacKenzie 2015) so that both sides can coax the best finished articles out of those early drafts. Anna had previous experience of writing and reviewing for academic journals, but the intricacies of editing were new to her. She has much appreciated Bob’s wisdom and critical friendship in negotiating the multiple roles, relationships and perspectives involved. She has learned to stand aside to allow Erica’s youthful energy, assurance and insight to shine.  From Erica’s point of view, years in top-down education systems and misguided University feedback sessions had perhaps led her to think that what was required was a kind of ‘fixing’. What she – indeed all three of us have – found was that editing is less about “fixing” (i.e. changing) and more about nurturing.

Overview of the articles

Fig 1: Stages of reciprocity. Taken from the Solihull Approach Training Materials (Douglas, 2009).  © Solihull Approach

As indicated above, Dawn Cutler introduces the psychological concept of reciprocity as a useful theoretical framework for professionals working with children and families.   She shows us that research on reciprocity suggests that there will always be ‘ruptures’ in reciprocal interactions between carers and children, but that learning that ruptures can be repaired is crucial for the growing child. She argues that this way of understanding reciprocity may also be applied to a professional training context.  

Dawn’s experience of training ‘reciprocally’ has focused on adapting this process to fit trainer-participant interactions in order to promote mutual understanding and create meaningful change.  Her article details some of the challenges involved in this approach and discusses her experiences of its implementation.

From this foundation, we can move to thinking about the benefits of reciprocity for working collaboratively and the challenges this involves.  Tony Page reflects on a particular instance of his facilitation practice when what appeared to him at the time to be narcissistic behaviour threatened to derail the process.  Looking at manifestations of narcissism in recent history as well as in his own life and work experience, Tony considers the balance between ‘self’ and ‘other’, and recognises that although we might stumble in the dance of reciprocity, we can also recover.  It is in these moments that there is sometimes the greatest potential for our leadership and teamwork to be transformed.

In her account of her travels in Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras with the Norwegian Solidarity Committee for Latin America, Veera Mo stresses the need for solidarity — as opposed to aid — if we are to come to terms with divisive social structures and histories.  Veera argues that solidarity is vital in promoting reciprocal relationships on an equal basis; before joining the dance we must first be open to it.  She discusses some of the challenges involved in international cooperation projects, but mostly focuses on the optimism and creativity she encountered during her time with various local grassroots movements working to create positive change.

This quest for a balance between the local and global carries through to the article by the OST curating team. This piece, written by Bob MacKenzie, Rosemary Cairns, Alison Piasecka and Andy Piasecki, embodies the very principle of reciprocity that this edition explores.  Employing the metaphor of a dance, the article is based on their experiences of curating and hosting three workshops in Brighton and Tostat in southwest France, and two themed editions of e-O&P, and explores how they have come to understand the central place of reciprocity in OST and praxis.  A carefully choreographed, collaboration-based piece, it traces their efforts to create a framework for enabling cooperative thinking and action that embraces the values of sharing, generosity, and reciprocity. They discuss the need to promote sustainability and to bridge divides in an increasingly polarised world by focusing on local projects whilst retaining a global outlook. They end with a glance at some of the challenges to come and an invitation to join the next event in Andalucia in 2018.

Resident and visitor in accord: Tostat’s Maire (left) and Bob celebrate the re-planting of the bibliothèque garden. Photo: Hyacinthe Garcia

Moving from the experiences of being a host to those of being a guest, in the next article Beth Davis recounts her experience of living with a Palestinian host family in Nablus, the West Bank, as part of her study abroad as a student of Arabic. Through stories of her experiences with food, clothing, and language, Beth navigates the themes of integration, adaptation, and cultural sensitivity, and makes a case for the primacy of reciprocity in cultural exchange. She addresses the challenges of learning how to ‘be’ in a foreign environment and stresses the importance of conscious communication in building meaningful relationships. Urging us to let go of preconceived notions of culture, Beth discusses her individual learning journey and the evolution of her relationship with her hosts in a compelling account of cross-cultural friendship.

The concept of biological symbiosis as a metaphor for reciprocal interaction in human systems is introduced by Shelagh Doonan, who has written an intriguing article recalling some key moments of reciprocity in her own professional life.  From her doctoral studies in marine biology to working in adult education, and then to inter-agency and whole systems facilitation, Shelagh points to the links in the chain (or chains) as she reflects on her own varied experiences and uncovers some of the essential conditions for real cooperation and transformative learning.  An exploratory piece that presents the reader with a series of vignettes, Shelagh’s article shows the connections and relationships that connect what could be seen as isolated events, and hints at the importance of allowing time when coming to important realisations and developing meaningful and long-lasting relations of reciprocity. 

In a conversation with her sister Kate Fairtlough, Anna Fairtlough asks how reciprocity is rooted in the running of La Burra Verde, Kate’s organic olive farm and the association of the same name in Andalucia, Spain. As an organisation committed to “developing models of sustainable and cooperative living and working”, La Burra Verde takes in volunteers who live and work on the farm, as well as participants who attend courses and workshops, and guests for eco-holidays. As in Shelagh Doonan’s article, Kate’s understanding of reciprocity stems from the idea of symbiosis. Her approach to La Burra Verde focuses on fostering relationships of mutual benefit and understanding on many levels: between herself and the volunteers and other guests; amongst the volunteers; and between La Burra Verde and the local community and environment.  The desire to combine practical, local models of sustainability with strengthening ties with other similar organisations elsewhere, echoes aspirations to act ‘glocally’ articulated in the article in this edition by the OST curating team. This makes La Burra Verde an ideal location for the further experimentations in OST and practice that are being planned for May 2018.

Controversy, connection and difference

The Call for Papers generated some controversy; in particular the question that asked: “how might Brexit, and the seeming epidemic of populisms, nationalisms, terrorisms, inter-state aggressions and voluntary and involuntary migrations, affect our resources, abilities and willingness to reciprocate?”  In a series of e-mails with Bob, and later with Anna, Chris Rodgers questioned whether this implied that the journal had an official ‘anti-Brexit’ position, and challenged us about the immediate juxtaposition of terrorism and Brexit in this sentence. Chris suggests that institutionalising social and economic relationships in the EU, and thus centrally determining what it means to be European, could in fact “undermine the motivation and capacity for reciprocity to thrive in its ‘natural’, human relationship form”. Chris goes on to say that the use of the word ‘populist’ has the potential to polarise debate, stoking division between those (perhaps like us in the editorial team?) who could be seen as occupying “an intellectually superior, politically correct, rational and socially elitist…moral high ground…versus the ill-educated, prejudiced, irrational, socially challenged others, who are easily swayed by ‘populist’ rhetoric”.

At the end of the email exchange, which we’ve reproduced as an appendix to this editorial, Anna mentions a project she had heard about that brought together people from two areas of Britain with very different voting patterns about whether to leave or remain in the EU. Chris thought this sounded: “Spot-on. Spontaneous and emergent (i.e. non-institutionalised) reciprocity in action, perhaps?” 

From rupture to repair?

Using the model of the ‘dance of reciprocity’ to analyse this exchange, we seem to have inadvertently launched straight into ‘the peak of excitement’ without the necessary initiation, orientation, attention and acceleration phases that the dance of reciprocity (Cutler, this edition) would suggest are vital for reciprocal communication.  Hence our communication with Chris began with a rupture that needed to be repaired.  Perhaps the words that we used are always likely to trigger this. Thankfully (and as envisaged in the Figure 1 above) it seems that, by the end, we had reached a point of repair, and had begun to tune into each other’s perspectives more effectively, thus enabling us to decelerate and turn away from each other with reciprocity intact. 

Within this particular exchange we did not explicitly respond to some of challenges that Chris posed to us.   We had not intended for our question to imply an equivalence between all the different divisions that we listed.  Neither did we mean to imply that there was – or ought to be – an AMED ‘position’ on Brexit.  Nonetheless, as Chris had rightly intuited, the two of us writing the Call for Papers did, personally, support Britain remaining in the EU. The puzzlement and regret of our French hosts in Tostat about Brexit was foremost in our minds as we wrote the call.  It is possibly true that we had unconsciously assumed that other AMED readers would be likely to share this perspective.  We certainly could have been more aware that listing these politically and socially divisive and highly emotive topics in such a way could have come over like that.  So thank you, Chris, for encouraging us to challenge our own implicit assumptions. 

If you’d like to join in this discussion, you are welcome to visit the Discussion Forum that we’ve created on the AMED website.

Healing for a fragmenting world?

Highlighted through this exchange with Chris, the project, funded by the Jo Cox Foundation, has reinforced to us the wisdom and benefits of bringing together people from two initially polarised communities  (Bowden 2016).  Here, rather than beginning with political differences and divisions, the conversations focused on what people in the two communities have in common.  Some quotes from participants illustrate how the Foundation is helping to support ‘healing for a fragmenting world’, just as our OST event in Tostat aspired to do, albeit on a smaller scale:.

“We didn’t talk about politics at first, we just talked about our experiences of living in towns.”

 “We had lots to laugh about and we talked about the weather and lack of affordable housing.  We have lots in common.’”  

The weekend of the 17/18 June 2017 saw over 100,000 events in the UK for the ‘Great-Get-Together’ that celebrated togetherness and community in memory of Jo Cox (The Guardian, 2017). The OST project has ‘lots in common’ with the aims of the Jo Cox Foundation; perhaps there may be opportunities to forge closer links in the future?

Commonalities across difference

The articles in this edition are rich and varied. They are varied in place: spanning India, Latin America, Palestine, Spain, France and the UK.  They are varied in style: they use different genres combining memoir, reflection on practice, conversations and imagery with more traditional academic discussion. They are varied in the types and contexts of experiences written about. Finally, they are varied in terms of the age and development stage of the contributors: some are in the midst of their professional ‘careers’, some at the beginning and others towards the end. Nonetheless, some common threads are interwoven, relating to reciprocity and facilitation practice, reciprocity across difference and inequality, reciprocity in relationships between hosts and guests, and reciprocity within and between the human and non-human worlds.  Such threads weave connections across these differences. However, there are still gaps: none relates to larger scale commercial organisations or attempts to assess Chris Rodgers’ conjecture that institutionalising reciprocity in, for instance, the form of the EU, may inhibit the kinds of ‘spontaneous, emergent instances of reciprocity-in-action’ that are much in evidence in the articles. We need to discover more about the potential ‘shadow side’ of reciprocity.  However, we hope that readers will find the articles to have the lively, engaging and real qualities that the journal aspires to embody, and we look forward to further reciprocal dialogues about the ideas and practices.

Our co-enquiry continues …


Bowden, G. 19/10/2016 Huffington Post ‘Jo Cox’s Fund is Already Uniting People After Brexit Vote no page numbers’,, accessed 22 June 2017.

Brazelton, T.B., Koslowski, B., Main, M. (1974) ‘The origins of reciprocity in mother-infant interaction’. in: M. Lewis, L. Rosenblum (Eds.) The Effect of the Infant on Its Caregiver. 1. Wiley, New York; 49–77.

The Guardian (18 June 2017) ‘Thousands flock together to Great Get Together events’,, accessed 22 June 2017.

MacKenzie, B. (2015).   ‘Critical friendships for coaching and mentoring in writing.’ e-Organisations and People, Vol 22, No 1, pp: 42-51. Spring.


One of the challenges inherent in reciprocal OST practice is how best to remain aware of and acknowledge the potentially multiple contributions to the development of an idea or practice, whilst giving due credit to their originators.  These contributions can emerge in varying degrees of significance, subtly or indirectly as well as obviously and overtly. We recognise that many people have contributed and are contributing in various ways to our project. Inevitably, some contributions will be more visible than others, such as those of the authors of the articles which appear in this edition, as well as those in the references we cite above.  Others are more subtle, invisible, less obvious.  Nevertheless, in their various ways, taken together they are an essential part of the evolving creative process of publication.  In that vein, we must thank David McAra for his excellent formatting and design work behind the scenes for this edition.  The editorial support team of Linda Williams, Julia Goga-Cooke and Ned Seabrook have also played their largely unseen part. As have all the participants in our various Gatherings and exchanges so far.  To everyone who has contributed wittingly or unwittingly to our co-inquiry we offer our grateful acknowledgements, and invite your continuing participation.

About the guest editors

Anna Fairtlough

Anna is a registered social worker with over thirty years’ experience of social work practice, management and education. Her research and publications are in the fields of professional leadership and organisational development, equalities and social work, and work with parents in different contexts. As a practitioner, front line manager and trainer she has developed policy, practice and training in the areas of child sexual abuse, domestic violence, supervision and practice education. Anna has wide experience of developing and teaching on qualifying and post-qualifying social work programmes. She is interested in exploring how ideas about reciprocity, containment, distributed leadership and open source thinking can be embodied in progressive social work, educational and organisational development practice. Her current book (Fairtlough 2017) addresses these issues.  You can contact Anna by e-mail at

Fairtlough, A. (2017) Professional Leadership for Social Work Practitioners and Educators. Hove: Routledge.

Erica Piasecka

Erica is a student of Arts and Culture at Maastricht University, the Netherlands. Having moved from Scotland to France at a young age, and later to Spain and the Netherlands for her studies, Erica has substantial experience of living and studying in reciprocally cross-cultural environments. She has professional experience in translation and language teaching and an interest in literature and gender studies. She has found the experience of helping to edit this journal to be hugely rewarding and looks forward to future collaborations.

You can contact Erica by email at

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