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How you react to what just happened often determines what happens next.

That being the case, you want to be sure that your reactions – and your responses – are meaningful, appropriate, and motivating.

The Downside of Merely Reacting

Reacting is a two-step process:

  1. Something happens
  2. You react

Although efficient, this process has embedded in it a major risk – that the way you react can all-too-easily undermine your intentions, derail progress, and cause a series of self-inflicted wounds.

Some examples:

  • Overreacting – Like using a chainsaw to cut through butter, this is when you react in ways that are clearly excessive and uncalled for.
    • Classic Example: Shooting the messenger who’s just brought you some bad news.
  • Under-Reacting – Like trying to knock down a wall with a feather, this is when you react in ways that even under the best of circumstances, are woefully insufficient.
    • Classic Example: Offering to meet with a direct report ‘sometime tomorrow’ when they really need your help right away.
  • Reacting Belatedly – Like closing the barn door after the cows have escaped, this is when your response is too late in coming, and too little in value.
    • Classic Example: Asking if there’s anything you can do now that everything is already done.
  • Reacting Tangentially – Like offering a glass of water to a fish, this is when you reply with relevant words, but in irrelevant, and unhelpful, ways.
    • Classic Example: When someone asks you to clarify a policy and you use a lot of corporate-speak but never actually say much of anything that helps actually answer the question.
  • Reacting Obtusely – Like Nero fiddling while Rome is burning, you respond in a way that seems completely unconnected to what’s been going on around you.
    • Classic Example: When someone comes asking for some help because s/he’s on a tight deadline and you insist on telling a very long and drawn out story that provides neither insight nor motivation – or help.
  • Reacting Vacantly – Like a regular Bermuda Triangle, you seemingly ignore or otherwise ‘lose track of ‘ the requests that others have made of you and are (still) waiting for from you.
    • Classic Example: Not responding to emails and voice mails because you’re quote/unquote too busy and seemingly disinterested.

The Upside of Responding

In contrast to the two-step process of reacting, responding is a three-step process:

  1. Something happens
  2. You quickly consider how best to respond, discarding counterproductive alternatives
  3. You respond in the most constructive manner, given the situation

Admittedly, Step 2 adds time. But not a lot, really – a few seconds, maybe? And the benefit is that you can make sure your verbal (and nonverbal) response helps keep thing moving meaningfully forward. And how long does it really take to consider how best to respond:

  • Thoughtfully?
  • Relevantly?
  • Helpfully?
  • Appreciatively?
  • Respectfully?

Self-Management is Key

Of course in order to respond, rather than merely react, you’ve got to be able to control yourself. But, frankly, if you can’t, you’re likely not nearly as suited to be a leader than you think.

Said another way, your job, in very real terms, requires more from you than just blurting out whatever, whenever.

The issue, if there even is one, is that getting good at responding, rather than merely reacting, takes a bit of practice and intention.

So be it, though, right?

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