Managers who are reactive are more mercurial less predictable less consistent in their behavior with their direct reports and peers, and as a result, they are less safe and less effective. Managers that are more responsive, are more thoughtful more mindful and they’re much more likely to have high-quality relationships where they’re trusted in the workplace.
Don [00:00:23] My name is Don Rheem, CEO of E3 Solutions and author of the book, “Thrive By Design: The Neuroscience That Drives High-Performance Cultures.
Don [00:00:32] I speak across North America on the neuroscience of engagement and I’m passionate about helping leaders at every level create engaging workplace environments where employees feel safe, recognized and valued. Employees who feel safe are happier, healthier and more productive.
Don [00:00:50] Each week, my team and I take on topics impacting managers and we offer solutions to your biggest workplace challenges. And, you’re listening to Thrive By Design, a podcast created by E3 Solutions to give managers, CEOs and leaders the tips, strategies and tools needed to create an engaged culture at work.
Kelly [00:01:14] Welcome. I’m your host Kelly Burns, vice president of client experiences at E3 Solutions. As always, we tackle critical workplace themes each week with our resident expert and CEO Don Rheem.
Kelly [00:01:27] Welcome Don and thank you for taking the time to be here with us.
Don [00:01:30] It’s my pleasure, Kelly.
Kelly [00:01:32] As we heard at the top of today’s episode this week’s focus is on helping leaders navigate how to stop reacting and start responding in the workplace.
Kelly [00:01:41] Few of us are capable of shifting our emotional state at will. However, when the reality and demands of work step in, we find ourselves in unavoidable situations, especially as leaders that require this kind of agility. It’s difficult for most of us to do this kind of shifting when you are emotionally triggered.
Kelly [00:01:59] When something frustrating or unexpected or disappointing happens our limbic systems go into overdrive and we tend to react instead of respond.
Kelly [00:02:07] A 2008 study revealed, unsurprisingly, that poorly managed conflicts have costs associated with them. The average employee spends nearly three hours a week dealing with conflict which roughly equates to 360 billion paid hours and a lot of this is caused because leaders react instead of respond.
Kelly [00:02:29] Why is it so critical for leaders to take a moment to recognize the importance of responding versus reacting in the workplace? And, what’s the difference between the two?
Don [00:02:36] I’d say that the difference is the reaction is going to be less personal. It’s going to be more tactical. It tends to have less positive emotional context around it. It’s what someone does when they feel hurried or rush. It tends to be a reflexive response rather than a thoughtful or a mindful response.
Don [00:02:55] We want leaders to be giving a response versus a reaction. Response is going to be something is going to be more strategic. It’s going to be a more open aperture, if you will, it’s going to be including the team or the context of relationships of other people, other things that could happen down the line. And, it’s also hopefully, if the leader is able to do this, the response is more tied in with a team objective, with organizational objectives, perhaps even core values could be a part of this. It’s just a more thoughtful mindful way to respond to an employee and as a result, the answer that comes as a response versus the answer that comes as a reaction. The response answers feels more complete and people are much more likely to comply and be aligned with it.
Kelly [00:03:40] I think we’ve all experienced situations where we’ve had somebody react on us rather than respond to us in the workplace.
Kelly [00:03:48] I’ll share a story from a past life, if you will, work life. Thankfully, this was not you but I had a leader and in a previous role where I had a responsibility that I asked one of my direct reports to do, to design a bulletin board that would be put out for other people in the organization to see. And, so I gave this employee lots of autonomy and some guidance on what it should cover and she did a great job pulling something together and put it up and it was out there and everybody could see it.
Kelly [00:04:25] For some reason my direct supervisor didn’t appreciate the bulletin board for how my direct support had designed it. Instead of responding to me with her thoughts around how it looked, she came up to me in a public venue threw the papers in her hands, out of her hands, physically got down on her knees in front of me, put her hands clasped in front of her and begged me to take it down in public.
Kelly [00:04:54] That is an extreme situation of reacting versus responding. There was no conversation about it. There was no thoughtfulness behind it. It was an immediate and public display of reaction that was highly embarrassing to me, as her employee, but also to my direct report who now had to go and do something about this. So we all have these situations. But how could my supervisor have handled that differently if she was going to respond appropriately versus react to something she disagreed with or disliked?
Don [00:05:27] Well, first of all, her response should have started with what her objectives were for the bulletin board and any comments that she had. Instead of just telling you take it all down, she should have come to you and said, “Well, here’s what I was hoping to accomplish with this form of public communication. I’m not sure we’re there yet, Kelly. I’m not sure this hits that, gets that done correctly. Help me understand what your thoughts were on.” I mean it would have been a conversation.
Don [00:05:53] But what changes for you when a leader does that? A loss of respect for that leader.
Kelly [00:05:58] Absolutely. I mean literally having to tell my supervisor to get up off her knees is a real low point in an employee’s life.
Don [00:06:08] I would imagine. You’re less likely to respect her, you’re less likely to be aligned with that person. Although many managers react in the typical reaction that we talk about here is angry. It’s either angry or it’s off the cuff, it’s just immediate, it’s completely unthoughtful, especially those angry reactions that many managers give and send.
Don [00:06:31] There’s no evidence in the research that kind of reaction is beneficial to the individual or to the organization.
Don [00:06:38] So the first thing managers need to realize is being reactive just isn’t helpful to the organization. It may feel good to you to be angry or reactive, you may feel like you’re releasing, you know, your own pent up frustrations or stress, and you’re allowed to have them. But taking them out in a way that’s just purely reactive just isn’t helpful to the organization. And it’s certainly not an example of great leadership.
Don [00:07:02] Anybody, anybody at any level can be reactive. Leaders are able to respond in a more thoughtful way and they do respond rather than react because they have the long term in mind, employee development, adherence to core values, adherence to mission and vision. And they’re constantly trying to raise the altitude of the conversation instead of drop it down.
Don [00:07:28] So for example when she dropped down on her knees and she said please take the bulletin board down that is a low altitude response. It’s tactical and it has to do with just removing something from a physical space. There’s nothing that’s aligned in there with organizational objectives, communication protocols. It’s just purely tactical and just an example of incredibly, poor leadership.
Kelly [00:07:50] All I could think at the time was, well afterwards, when I had time to process the very strong emotions I felt, was she never once asked why we did it this way. Why was it up like this? Why, what was the goal behind this? What was our thought process behind this? And, if she had taken any extra time to breathe and then to say, I’d love to hear more about your approach to this particular task. I could have had a much more thoughtful conversation with her or any kind of thoughtful conversation with her versus being embarrassed and told what to do essentially.
Don [00:08:28] There’s two other things here, involved in management theory, that are in play.
Don [00:08:32] The most common one well known is just emotional intelligence and that was a very poor demonstration of emotional intelligence.
Don [00:08:40] The other part, more from the therapeutic side, in the brain science side is emotional deregulation. And too often these reactive moments are when a person is emotionally deregulated, that is, they’re not really in thoughtful control of their emotions and how they’re expressed. That’s a very low level of communication. It’s a very high-risk level of communication because of its potential negative impacts on others.
Don [00:09:05] One of the things that we talk about for example in our employee engagement boot camp for managers, is we talk about the importance of managers being consistent and predictable. And, one of the ways that happens is for the manager, the leader who is emotionally regulated. That is, they understand their emotions, how they’re feeling in the moment but they’re not necessarily controlled by those emotions and they don’t react to those emotions unthoughtfully.
Kelly [00:09:30] I think a key point you’re bringing up is that these emotions are going to happen that the natural inclination through the limbic system is to react. But emotionally intelligent, emotionally regulated leaders have strategies to help them avoid doing that. What are some strategies that might come into play here to help us respond when we naturally want to react?
Don [00:09:53] One I would start with is not to lead with judgment but to lead with curiosity.
Don [00:09:57] Too often we respond with judgment. We make a quick yes-no decision, good, bad decision and then we act or say something about it. These judgments are often very skewed by our own personal experiences and everything in life from and at work, they’re not necessarily aligned with the larger, corporate objectives or mission, vision or core values.
Don [00:10:17] So, we want someone to, you said this word earlier, take a breath to think about how they’re feeling, what it means, how that might impact what they say and to step back from their emotional experience. And, then, say okay, how can I respond to this in a more thoughtful way?
Don [00:10:30] A big thing right now out in the literature around how to impact emotional regulation is this concept called, mindfulness. And one of the key components of mindfulness is that you start with an open mind and that you don’t even let your own personal beliefs rush in and take over what you do. That you’re able to listen to other ideas without being quickly reactive to them. But you’re taking it in without judgment, in a way to help understand the other, rather than just reacting to how you feel.
Don [00:11:07] How does that help me understand the other? And that’s something that your supervisor, had they been a better leader, would have wanted to explore with you.
Kelly [00:11:15] Mindfulness is often easier said than done, as well, it’s a tough concept to do well all the time.
Kelly [00:11:22] One of the things I like to do is employ a sanity check. When I start to feel some sense of reaction versus response and having a trusted other, whether it be at work or at home, that you can bounce the situation off of instead of having an immediate reaction to a situation. But to step back, talk to somebody else that you trust about what you saw, what happened and your response to it, to see if it’s appropriate, will help you come back to that situation to respond later in a much more appropriate and trusting way for your direct reports.
Don [00:11:57] And it’s not that you’re looking to this other person for approval or a rubber stamp on what you’ve said. Part of the benefit is simply sharing it with another, just vocalizing and sharing it actually helps us understand it better and process the emotions.
Don [00:12:11] But we also might hear from this trusted other, whether it’s someone at home or at work, their view, their take and they’re going to help us be more responsive. They may also give us more context about what happened that we hadn’t thought of before and hopefully just slow us down. And, if there are if it’s a really good relationship, they’ll help us feel better. You know an empathetic statement would be something like, wow, that must have been really hard for you in that moment.
Don [00:12:38] Just having someone understand the emotions that we felt in that moment helps us understand them as well. You’re absolutely right, Kelly, when you said we can’t control the emotions. You can’t control emotions. This process happens in three one-hundredths of a second in the human brain. It’s cue, tone, action.
Don [00:12:56] When that experience happened to you the cue was, oh my gosh something’s happening important, oh the tone was, oh my gosh she’s on her feet in front of me being highly critical and your action in the moment was just please stand up, you know, I’m embarrassed.
Don [00:13:12] The fourth component of this is making meaning and that’s what takes place after the fact.
Don [00:13:17] So I just want to ask you on the story, what meaning did you make from that experience when you had a chance to think about it and think it through?
Kelly [00:13:24] I think you hit the nail on the head earlier as we were talking about the situation. It helped me see that I can’t necessarily trust my direct supervisor. I have somebody who’s going to react in ways that can not just damage our own relationship but the relationship of others around us who are witnessing this situation take place because it is in a public venue. It also shows me the ways in which I don’t ever want to do that to my own direct reports. So it was a good lesson learned in that sense as well.
Don [00:14:00] Can I just say as a footnote as hard as that was for you and the fact that it happened, I’m glad that it did because it’s one of the reasons you left that organization and came to ours so it’s a silver lining here for me.
Kelly [00:14:11] That’s a really good point. When leaders react instead of respond, they’re not just damaging a situation or making a bad day for their employees, they are causing turnover, they are causing disengagement, they are causing toxicity in the workplace that goes far beyond the five-minute interaction that we had in that moment. Reaction has negative consequences that span far beyond the one interaction you have with your employee when you’re triggered to react versus respond.
Don [00:14:41] We know that employees join companies and they quit managers. And, so when organizations and leaders are thinking about, how do we retain the employees we have in this tight labor market, having leaders at all levels in the organization, all the way down to the supervisor level that are able to respond more than react, to have the leadership maturity to step back from the emotional response they may be feeling in the moment and thinking of some of these broader objectives that the organization has like retention alignment with core values.
Don [00:15:13] That’s why we want to have a more responsive answer to the situation than the reactive.
Kelly [00:15:22] So what happens when a good leader reacts instead of response? They have a bad day or a bad situation they just let their emotion take control, what can a leader do to alleviate that situation and not cause that all of these negative ramifications over time?
Don [00:15:37] I’m going to use the research in couples therapy, that is, the empirically validated research in couples therapy.
Don [00:15:43] We know that many couples argue and they can argue really vociferously. And some people would say that couples that argue that’s a sign of an unhealthy relationship. And what we know is that both healthy and unhealthy couples argue.
Don [00:15:58] The key differentiator is the ability to repair. That is to come back and repair after the argument.
Don [00:16:05] So, my suggestion to managers is, if you’ve done something that was reactive it’s okay. It’s not the end of the day. You don’t do it all the time. But the key thing for you is to repair after you’ve done it.
Don [00:16:17] So I’m going to come back to you. Let’s say I’ve been reactive to you, Kelly and afterward I thought about it, wow, that was just so fast so quick, I just flashed and I said this or that to you.
Don [00:16:27] I need to come back and say, Kelly, I want to talk about what I said yesterday. I reacted in a way that kind of even surprised me and as I thought about it afterward, I think that I was just, I was a little frightened. Maybe a little scared about the implications of what had happened and I thought we were going to lose this really important client. And my fear about losing this client, I think just overwhelmed me and I ended up saying some things I now regret. I do think you’re one of the best employees I’ve ever worked with in my life. I do.
Don [00:17:00] Oh now you’re smiling a little dopamine oxytocin being released.
Don [00:17:04] I do think you’re an excellent employee who is very responsive to customer needs and I just want to apologize for how reactive I was.
Don [00:17:14] That’s an example of repair so that trust can be restored.
Don [00:17:17] And to use the example that you did. Your supervisor could have come to you and said, Kelly, I am really sorry about dropping to my knees and begging you to take the bulletin board down. This is what was probably true for her. She was worried there was some self-image thing there that she was worried about, about what this meant about her self-image, that others were going to see this bulletin board, know that it was hers and something about her said, I don’t want people to think that was me and she became essentially terrified of the impact to her reputation.
Don [00:17:51] That sort of indicates what kind of a spectrum she’s on and she probably reacts that way all the time, very self-conscious, not sure of herself. No, I have not. But the symptoms of what she’s doing are are pretty clear. Self-assured leaders don’t rush out to do that because they’re less concerned about their reputation than they are about the relationship that supervisor has with one of their direct reports. That should be the predominant concern.
Kelly [00:18:18] I think you hit the nail on the head in a lot of ways there. One of the big ones is that we’re more likely to react or feel like reacting when we have a perception of our own self image, self-esteem or vulnerability. When we feel like we’re not safe, seen valued in some way, we’re more likely to have this kind of emotional reaction because that’s who we are as human beings is we need to feel like we belong and are valued by others. And, if there was a damage there or a potential damage to self-esteem or our reputation that could cause a significant amount of emotional reaction.
Don [00:19:01] The bottom line, managers who are reactive are more mercurial, less predictable, less consistent in their behavior with their direct reports and peers and as a result, they are less safe and less effective. Managers that are more responsive are more thoughtful, more mindful and they’re much more likely to have high-quality relationships where they’re trusted in the workplace.
Kelly [00:19:23] That’s it for today. I’m your host Kelly Burns and thank you for listening.
Kelly [00:19:27] Tune in to next week’s episode on active listening.
Kelly [00:19:31] Are you looking for science-based solutions to increase employee engagement and retention? Are you ready to measure key drivers of high-performance? Do you want your team to look forward to coming to work? Don’t wait. Check out e3solutions.com right now.
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Kelly [00:20:03] Thank you for listening and subscribe wherever you enjoy your podcasts. See you next week!