Breaking free of a reactive cycle

Ideally, leaders should be able to act in the present, while thinking in the future. However, one of the common pitfalls of incumbent companies is the tendency to be stuck in a reactive cycle. We have all been there. Your to-do-list is packed, your calendar has barely time for lunch, and the triple-digit number of unread emails is constantly acting as an indicator of falling behind.

As a result, every instinct in our body urges us to start at the top of the list and start executing on the issues at hand. The faster one comes up with a solution, the more dopamine is released as a mechanism of our craving for instant gratification. While there is nothing wrong with having a crunch day where you get a lot of trivial stuff done every once in a while, the challenges arise when every day is a never-ending game of catching up and slowly exhausting the organization by chasing yesterday’s news.

A reactive approach to problem-solving may get things done, but surely has pitfalls. By thinking reactively, the fastest way to come up with a solution to any given problem is to apply past experiences, if you constantly deploy past experiences and proven solutions to any problem, it is a surefire way of inhibiting any innovation, as your brain will automatically gun down anything that does not fit your frame of reference. But perhaps the biggest pitfall is the danger of jumping to conclusions to fast instead of spending enough time to define and break down the problem at hand before implementing a solution.

The implications of reactive leadership tendencies is well described in Scaling Leadership: Building Organizational Capability and Capacity to Create Outcomes That Matter Most, where Robert Anderson and William Adams have surveyed more than one million leaders to look for leadership that scales as well as leadership that limit scale. Their findings on reactive leadership show that outside forces drive most of us much more than we realize. According to Adams, most of us operate from a play-not-to-lose inner game, and our fear of not meeting outside expectations drives us toward a reactive mode.  

According to their research, reactive leaders typically emphasize caution over creating results, self-protection over productive engagement, and aggression over building alignment. These self-limiting styles overemphasize the focus on gaining the approval of others, protecting oneself, and getting results through high control tactics. Each of these behaviors reduces the effectiveness of leaders instead of increasing it.

While a reactive leadership style can provide excellent results, reactive leaders tend to overdevelop their own strengths, while neglecting to develop others. In short, the results may come at the expense of those who report to and work with them.

Over time, this may lead to a lack of ability to see the bigger picture, and an increasing tendency to micro-manage rather than coach and guide your employees. Most would agree that this does not spell a motivating work environment, and in order to effectively lead, one needs to break free if you find yourself stuck in a reactive pattern.

While this is easier said than done, there are some techniques that would potentially ease the transition. Just remember that leadership is all about balance, and having one gaze fixed on the future without tending to the present, brings along a completely new set of challenges. It is therefore important to maintain a balance between present and future and tend to everyday needs without being caught up in micromanaging.

The first step towards making a change in behavior is to realize when you are entering reactive mode and be able to cut down on the tasks that eat away on your time and attention. Being busy does not equal being productive, and rather than taking on any task coming your way, focus relentlessly on succeeding with those that matter the most.

Remember that as a leader, your job is not to be the one with all the answers, but rather the one that coach and ask the right questions that motivate your team to develop, grow to find the answers for themselves.

Stop doing the job for your employees, delegate, and empower them instead. This will not only free up your own time but also motivate your team. Spend your newly acquired time on building trust and confidence in your employees, thus raising your standing as a leader.

Even though there are many steps, one could take to improve oneself, being stuck in a reactive cycle is unfortunately often a company-wide issue, where all levels of leadership are stuck in the same hamster wheel. Lack of diversity on the senior leadership level has a tendency to strengthen this predicament, as a homogenous leadership team tends to gravitate towards a state of groupthink.

The only way to break free from this situation is to achieve a collective understanding of why this is a problem for the organization. Make sure to get diverse views on the situation, and involve widely across the organization. Often it is useful to envision potential future scenarios for your industry or target market and see if your present mode of operations would fit in. In order to succeed with such an exercise, it is necessary to take yourself out of the equation. How would you go forward if you were your fiercest competitor?  

As we are in the midst of a global pandemic, the only certainty is that the future will be in a state of perpetual change and uncertainty. Imagination, creativity, and curiosity should be skillsets that is encouraged in any leader. Those who are able to envision the future, strategize and communicate in a way that motivates the organization to stay ahead of the curve and shape the future, while still delivering results in the present are the winners of tomorrow.

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