Reactivity is the enemy of effectiveness. In any project, things change: Regulations, scope, staffing, and more. Leaders are called upon to respond.
Their goal is to minimize disruption, staying on course as a mariner might follow the North Star. This requires thoughtful reassessment of how conditions have changed and how to recalibrate. Getting back on track is rarely done in one day or one decision.
Reactive thought is rooted in a tendency to meet the unexpected by “punching back.” It is, in essence, an emotional reaction driven by underlying fear or anger. In a way, this is not surprising: New circumstances create uncertainty, and few things are as stressful.
Imagine one of our Neolithic ancestors watching over his small tribe while they sleep at night. Out in the brush, he hears rustling and spots a subtle shift in the shadows. Instantly – with no conscious thought – he is ready. His heart pumps, his muscles tense, and he prepares to run or fight.
This reaction is fundamental. It served early humans well. When you are walking alone at night through a dangerous city, the ancient brain structures responsible for reactive behavior, principally the amygdala, are still at work to protect you. The amygdala integrates and processes emotion, especially fear and anger.
The problem: An emotional response to a complex business problem often turns out to be short-sighted and even self-defeating. Leaders must be wary of that first reaction and re-engage their higher thinking.
Responsiveness: The Antidote To Reactivity
Reactivity threatens to compound one problem with another.
A journalist breaks a story about a potentially dangerous defect in one of your products. No engineering data exists to clarify the matter: For now, it is hearsay. But it is being widely reported. Social media is flooded with unkind responses. Investors are leaving voicemails.
A reactive action would be to fire back on Twitter or compose a press release in haste. Coverage ramps up as detractors now feel the company has something to hide. Meanwhile, the safety concern has not been addressed. The business barrels forward, unprepared for the consequences.
Thus, reactivity leads to “fighting fire with fire” – and burning bridges in the process.
How would this situation play out with a responsive mindset?
Responsiveness implies “response,” a dialogue. It means gathering relevant insights and answering the unexpected in a measured, strategic, and thoughtful manner. By doing so, leaders can choose to remain proactive even when navigating circumstances over which their control is limited.
A responsive leader acknowledges the emotional component of a situation and steps back, focusing on the big picture. He or she assesses the facts and recognizes that the greater unknown is whether the alleged safety issue is valid. Then, marshalling all the resources necessary, a plan is enacted that:
- Communicates the company’s side of the story and protects its commercial interests
- Evaluates the validity of the safety claim and meets regulatory and ethical obligations
Reactive thinking typically focuses on a small piece of the unfolding situation to the exclusion of everything else. This makes sense when you consider that, while in the reactive mindset, individuals conceptualize each problem in terms of what it means to them personally.
Only in the responsive mindset can leaders be strategic and embody their values.
Correcting For Reactive Thinking In Leadership Decisions
Why is it that, faced with an operational setback, many business leaders have an emotional response akin to being confronted by a tiger on the savannah? There is no physical threat of the kind the amygdala is honed to prevent, but a threat nonetheless exists: The threat of lost status.
Before you are tempted to dismiss this thought, remember that the basic neurological experience of physical pain and social rejection are very similar. A reactive, even flailing response to the unknown is, at its core, an attempt to avoid pain.
Enterprises can make institutional and operational changes that help leaders step out of the spotlight cast by a problem and direct their attention to the unknown, yet crucial factors that really shape the situation:
1. Document “Red Lines” For Company Values
In B2B and B2C contexts alike, customers often choose between similar competitors based on the values each stands for. To have true business impact, values must be codified in policy, so it is clear when they take precedence. For example, in a company with a culture dedicated to world-class safety, a safety review would obviously take precedence over a PR response, curbing the detrimental effects of reactivity.
2. Define KPIs
Project leaders have to balance decisions in terms of time, budget, and quality. They can only do so if each relevant KPI is clear, measurable, and derived logically from information they can obtain. Handling the unexpected means making trade-offs that may not satisfy all expectations. Solid KPIs ensure that the decision-maker knows which performance areas are considered indispensable.
3. Solidify Cross-Functional Collaboration
Reactive thinking can be a consequence of feeling a decision-maker is “alone in the woods,” compromising between inadequate options. This intensifies the negative emotions associated with the initial shock. Strong cross-functional communication and collaboration can furnish leaders with more creative solutions and the resources to carry them out, even when a substantial shift is required.
Recognizing Reactive Thinking In Frontline Employees
If responsiveness is necessary for leaders to be strategic, what does that mean for individual contributors?
Even those who have no managerial responsibilities must diligently train themselves for responsive habits of thought. Frontline employees face dozens of opportunities to choose between reaction and response.
These decisions can be made quickly, but they are hugely consequential.
The difference between responsiveness and reactivity is the difference between focusing one’s time and attention on the most important matters and failing to do so. That is the foundation of time management, a necessity for higher leadership outcomes.
Here is how to equip employees for success:
1. Enable Personnel To Focus On Top Priorities
Senior leadership has a role to play in helping workers avoid being pulled into reactivity by demands that are “urgent, but not important.” In particular, explore ways to set measurable expectations for the productivity of meetings, which will naturally reduce their size and frequency, and after-hours email.
2. Use Structured Talent Development Approaches
Those who aspire to lead must understand not only how their current performance is measured, but what preparation will position them for promotion. Identify high potential employees early and engage them in mentorship-based dialogue, ensuring they recognize both their current and “next step” KPIs.
3. Gather Feedback From Reports’ Reports
Getting feedback from deeper within the organization can highlight areas where, due to workflow or resource constraints, employees feel they have no choice but to operate in reactive mode. Such situations call out for re-engineered processes. Note that, for full candor, anonymity may be required.
From individual decisions on time allocation to the highest-level realization of your business culture, data is essential. Equal Parts helps you implement change campaigns that foster lasting commercial excellence through KPI definition and improvement. To find out more, contact us.