One leader responded to my last post on Creative vs Reactive by telling me his own story of reacting in a way he wishes he could take back. He and a colleague were at an industry conference when they bumped into a client. The client asked a fairly innocent question in a crowded noisy room – “How long are you all here [at the conference]?” My friend’s colleague, not hearing the question accurately, answered, “We’re on our way to ABC breakout session . . .” and proceeded to tell the client why they were interested in the session. This leader, embarrassed with his colleague’s response, abruptly interrupted and talked over him to answer the client’s question.
Later, after a little distance from the client, my leader friend recognized his rudeness with his colleague and regretted reacting as he had. He remarked to me, “Rob, it seems like this is a different, and even dangerous, form of reactivity that can keep me from being my best. I wish I had not reacted so impulsively and thrown my colleague under the bus!”
I certainly agree. In my previous discussion of reactive versus creative, we focused largely on daily activity and how a leader manages his or her tasks and calendar. This is a very “surface-y” version of creative-reactive.
But the type my friend describes goes deeper. Here, hidden emotions, thoughts and instincts drive poor reactions in ways that undermine our leadership. Think of this reaction as a “flinch” – it happens so automatically and quickly that the words are out of your mouth before you realize what you’ve said.
In challenging situations, highly effective leaders respond with as much or more creativity than reactivity.
Author Brené Brown posits that we are emotional beings who also think, as opposed to thinking beings who also feel. Brown says that when we experience a stressful situation, our emotions – not our thoughts – get the first crack at our response. And these emotions drive our thoughts and behaviors.
Inherently, emotions are neither good nor bad. What is “good” or “bad” about emotions is whether we are managing them (good!) or they are managing us (bad!). In a stressful, uncomfortable, or challenging situation, leaders are prone to allow their emotions to take control — generally with some combination of anger, fear or shame.
An anger reaction drives the instinct to control, and causes leaders to micromanage, dominate others, or insist on perfection. A fear reaction can drive the instinct to protect, and causes leaders to withdraw and/or criticize others. Finally, a shame reaction drives the instinct to comply, and can cause leaders to become passive, or people pleasing.
These reactions come naturally, but there is a way to combat this innate, reactive behavior. These self-leadership steps can help you stave off an emotionally charged reaction and develop a heightened sense of self-awareness:
- Pause! Instead of reacting immediately, pause for a moment.
- Take stock of your emotions and where they are taking you. Where do you want to go instead? This is a more creative approach.
- Shift from feeling to thinking. Logically, what does the moment call for?
- Alternatively, shift from feeling to your gut. Your gut discerns in black and white – so a gut instinct will give you a different perspective on a situation than your emotions.
After you’ve paused and become aware of your emotions, the following questions may help you to shift from feeling to thinking, allowing you to respond more thoughtfully and creatively:
- If you’re reacting angrily and experiencing the instinct to control, ask yourself, “How can I collaborate?”
- If you’re reacting out of fear and experiencing the instinct to protect, ask yourself, “How can I act with courage?”
- Finally, if you’re reacting out of shame and experiencing the instinct to comply, ask yourself, “What do I believe is right and true?”
Reactivity comes too naturally for all of us; in my last post, I described it as being on autopilot. Turn off the autopilot and notice how you lead under stress. How often are you reactive? How often are you creative?
Great leaders self-lead in a way that minimizes reactivity, and replaces it with a thoughtful, creative response.
One more thing . . . . Here at the McKinnon Group, we use a 360 feedback assessment in our coaching with leaders that actually measures how much of their observed behavior is Creative and how much is Reactive. If you’d like to explore whether it could be helpful to you or leaders in your organization, let’s talk. Contact Linda here to set up a time.