All leaders will deal with reactivity at one point or another. It can be caused by a proposed change from the leader, it may be the result of direct and necessary action taken by the leader, or, it can come out of the blue. Leaders of necessity will have to deal with reactivity, but here are ten things NOT to do when reactivity makes its appearance:
- Confront it head on. Taking on reactivity head on rarely is an effective tactic. For one thing we will find ourselves addressing the reactivity rather than its cause. A frontal assault on reactivity is merely reactivity to reactivity.
- Maintain an unreasonable faith in reasonableness. Persons caught in the grips reactivity are immune to data, or reasonableness. They are operating out of perceived threat, so their instincts have taken over the rational part of their brain. Allow time for the feeling of threat to pass before attempting a meeting of minds. There will be those who refuse to be reasonable for a number of reasons. The rules are different when dealing with those who refuse to reason.
- Question or ascribe motive to poor behavior. Because reactivity is a product of by-passing cognition it's not helpful to question people's motives. They are, literally, not in their right mind. Realize that people in acting out their reactivity are not at their best and are not acting out of principled thinking. Most likely, persons caught in the grip of reactivity don't know why they are acting the way they are.
- Take it personally. Ninety-eight percent of the time, the reactivity that comes your way is not about you, even when it feels like it. Occupying the leader position means you're the point person for reactivity, it comes with the job. Some reactivity will be projection of other people's issues, perceptions, or unresolved conflicts. Some will come your way just because it's convenient to dump it on your desk. Some will come to your just because people are feeling powerless and need someone to "do something" about it.
- Make it personal. Being on the receiving end of reactivity comes with the job. Often you'll be surprised at who vents frustration on you. Others will engage in a pattern of reactivity with you as the focus. Either way, focusing on the emotional process (people's functioning in the system) rather than focusing on the person, or personality, will help you get to the cause behind the reactivity. Personal attacks not withstanding, leaders do well not to take systemic problems worse by making it personal.
- Neglect to assess your part of it. There are fives sides to every story, and three you'll never find out about. There will be occasions when the reactivity (and accusations) leveled at you will, to some degree, actually be "about you." Our tendency will be to deny culpability, deflect blame, made excuses, avoid the discomfort of the situation, or simply convince ourselves we are not part of the problem. Mature and effective leaders have capacity to self-assess honestly their roles in systemic problems, and they are able to sincerely apologize and work at doing better.
- Forget to breath. When faced with reactivity we experience threat, and the biological response to it (fight or flight). Give your brain the oxygen it needs to think and reason--it's your most important resource in the midst of reactivity. So, breathe!
- Neglect to step back. Whether physically or emotionally, taking a step back from reactivity provides perspective. Taking a step back physically from a person engaged in reactivity helps remove a sense of psychological threat. Thinking to oneself, "Will this matter six months from now," can provide emotional distance and offer perspective to the existentially painful moment.
- Let your feelings rule over your principles. Informed values and principles are the two resources that provide correctives in the midst of reactivity. What values guide your relationship with persons--in whatever circumstance? What is your guiding principle when dealing with reactivity?
- Forget your place. You are the leader in the system, and you can't forget that. One of the burdens of leadership is that those in leadership do not have the luxury of giving in to the baser emotions. Getting angry, feeling outraged, nurturing feelings of victim-hood, holding a grudge, and lashing out may be emotionally cathartic, but once a leader gives in to them he or she ceases to be the leader in the system. When others in the system are loosing control of their emotions, that's the time a system needs its leader to be the most centered, non-reactive, and principled person in the system.
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. Formerly, he was Dean at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Ministry (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer and Don Reagan. Galindo contributes to the Wabash Center's blog for theological school deans.