We often frame reactive behaviour in an individual context, but what does it look like in the context of a team, division or organization?
As Bill Anderson puts it, reactive tendencies emphasise “caution over creating results, self-protection over productive engagement, and aggression over building alignment.”
It looks and sounds different all the time, but always with a similar feel: 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), protecting self and ego (avoiding vulnerability) and generating results by restricting the scope of others to act independently (controlling). Bottom line, reactive behaviour is the fruitless search for safety.
And unfortunately, reacting to the external environment limits our ability to draw on the natural creativity and energy of ourselves and others.
Does it matter?
We often work with managers to build their capacity to create effective change. One of my favourite learning exercises allows participants to experience the process of aligning two groups to achieve a common goal. This involves dividing the participants into two groups, a Management Group and a Work Group. A goal and task is delegated to the Management Group, along with a series of “rules”. The work group does not know either goal nor the task.
Virtually every time I facilitate this 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 direction, and the PICTURE of the change with the Work Group. However, without the context of PURPOSE and PICTURE, the Work Group not only has no clarity as to what PART (role) they play in the change, they often become disillusioned and, at times, outright alienated from the Management Group.
But why? In the debriefs, the Work Group often reports that they felt disempowered. On many occasions I even see them actively engage in varying levels of passive (and not so passive) resistance. Some Work Groups occasionally disregard the direction they were given to “do nothing without the explicit instructions of the Management Group” and proactively seek out the Management Group and demand to collaborate with them. This is creative behaviour, but it’s not the norm.
The Management Groups are a different story. They tend to become fixated on “solving” the problem and typically are loath to admit to the Work Group that they don’t actually understand the issues facing them. During the exercise debrief, Management Group typically shares that they felt under great pressure to not fail, to not admit defeat, and to figure it out themselves. The unspoken organisational values which appear to underpin this are a belief that good managers must be quick and 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 for safety and looking good, for shared purpose and shared success. Managers, in this case, make the solution more important than their reputation, by stepping outside of what others will think of them and by focusing on what is really important – facilitating results based on a shared vision.
When they do this, they show up as leaders. They create context, and allow the Work Groups to co-create the content.
- Share the real Purpose of the change and discuss it openly.
- Share the Picture of the change and address the concens that arise in a meaningful way.
- Co-create the Plan for the change.
- Ensure that everyone is aligned to play their Part, and are encouraged and supported to contribute.
How are reactive tendencies showing up in your organisation? How are they holding your organisation back?