“But what does ‘reactive’ look and sound like in practice? And does it really matter?” were questions I was asked after last week’s blog Reactive Habit versus Creative Choice.
To recap, reactive tendencies emphasise “caution over creating results, self-protection over productive engagement, and aggression over building alignment.” (Anderson, and Adams, 2016)
It looks and sound different all the time, but always with the same flavour: reacting to things from one’s external environment in a way that seeks to protect oneself by creating the reward of belonging to the group (complying), avoiding vulnerability (protecting self and ego) and generating results by restricting the scope of others to act independently (controlling). Reacting to the external environment limits our ability to draw on the natural creativity and energy of ourselves and others.
Does it matter?
I work with a lot of organisations to build the capacity of their managers to effectively lead change initiatives. A really effective (and one of my favourite) learning experiences involves the creation of two groups – a management group and a work group – who are to work is to experience the process of aligning two groups to achieve a common goal. A goal and task is delegated to the Management Group, along with a series of “rules”.
Interestingly, in virtually every single iteration of the exercise, the Management Group gets busy trying to solve the problem by creating a PLAN. It is not just uncommon, but actually rare for the Management Group to share the PURPOSE or PICTURE of the change with the Work Group. Without the context of PURPOSE and PICTURE, the Work Group not only has no clarity as to what their PART (role) in the change is, they often become disillusioned and, at time, quite alienated from the Management Group.
But why? Well, the Work Group often reports that that they felt dis-empowered and on many occasions engage in varying levels of passive (and not so passive) resistance. Some Work Groups disregard the direction they were given to “do nothing without the explicit instructions of the Management Group” to pro-actively seek out the Management Group and demand to collaborate with them. This is very creative behaviour, but not the norm.
The Management Group are a different story. They tend to become fixated on “solving” the problem and typically are loathe to admit to the Work Group that they don’t actually understand the issues facing them. During the exercise debrief, Management typically share that they felt under great pressure to not fail, to not admit defeat, and to figure it out themselves.
The organisational values which appear to underpin this are a sense that good managers must be clever, good problem solvers, and quick. And ideally all at the same time: quick, clever problem solvers.
This tendency falls clearly into the land of the Protecting and Controlling – with managers driven by a desire to avoid looking bad and to generate good results at all costs.
But what if managers focused on alignment, that is to say creating direction for, and connection with, their team? Strikingly the solution to the exercise has only ever been generated by Management and Work Groups who align around purpose and co-create next steps. When this happens, Management Groups trade the desire to look good for shared purpose and shared success. Managers in this case make the solution more important than themselves by stepping outside of what others will think and focus on what is really important – facilitating results.
When they do this, they show up as leaders. They create context, and allow their teams to co-create the content. That’s leadership.
How are reactive tendencies showing up in your organisation? How are they holding your organisation back?