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When Reacting is Re-Acting

Leadership

This blog was originally posted on Unstuck Minds

A few weeks ago, I led a day-long workshop for seventy-five high potential managers who work for a global technology company. The managers, representing every region of the world where the company does business are enrolled in a two-year program consisting of a variety of activities and assignments. Once each year, the entire group gathers for a week of workshops and networking.

As a whole, the managers are smart, driven, action-oriented, competitive, and entrepreneurial. It’s easy to see why they’ve been identified as future executives; they embody the culture of the organization. My job was to teach them how to slow down, reflect on the thinking traps that might keep them stuck, and have them practice reframing the questions they had been asking about the situations they wanted to change. It did not go well.

I had worked with many of the leaders in the group before, so I singled one out that I knew pretty well and asked for some feedback about the session. He told me that his typical day consists of juggling multiple challenges. He’ll take an action to make progress on one challenge and if he hits a roadblock or a delay, he’ll refocus his attention on one of his other challenges. Sometimes an emergency erupts, and everything gets reprioritized. The idea of slowing down to reframe a challenge when you’re not making progress made sense to him in theory, but also felt unrealistic and counterculture. As with many organizations, action gets noticed, thinking might be mistaken for indecision.

While I was listening, the image came to mind of a plate spinner’s act that I remember watching on the Ed Sullivan show when I was growing up. I remember the act as mesmerizing and dramatic; now it feels quaint. It’s as if each day the leaders of this company attempted to keep china plates spinning on the top of narrow sticks; the priority of the moment, the wobbliest plate, attracts attention and determines a leader’s next move.

It may sound like I’m making excuses for the unsatisfying workshop experience, “If the participants weren’t so addicted to action, they might recognize the value of what I’m offering.” I’m not proud to admit that I did actually have that thought when I saw the ratings on the evaluation form. Upon reflection, I see now that I failed to practice what I’ve been preaching.

Who needs what?

A big part of the Unstuck Minds Method, which was the topic of the workshop rests on the foundational principles of Design Thinking. Design thinking asks us to empathize with and learn about the people we want to help and then build on insights about what they need (ideally needs they themselves don’t recognize). To be honest, I didn’t empathize with the leaders in my workshop, I wanted to fix them.

Another element of the Unstuck Minds Method is to recognize that our framing of the situations we want to change belies the assumptions and beliefs we hold about the situation and those involved. In the workshop, we teach people about Quicksand Questions, the framing of a challenge in the form of a question that gets you stuck. The more you work to answer a quicksand question, the more stuck you become. One category of quicksand question comprises questions of the form: How do we get them to change? Leaders often frame their challenges as seeking to take action that alters the behavior of others based on the leader’s needs. For example, “How do we get managers to spend more time coaching their teams?” or “How do we get our customers to follow us on social media?”

Ironically, I had designed a workshop containing an admonition to avoid quicksand questions built on a hidden quicksand question: How do I get the leaders of this company to respond thoughtfully to their challenging situations rather than react to them? Like the most dangerous quicksand, you don’t notice it until you’re stuck in it.

Reacting is Re-Acting

Compounding the error, I started emulating the leaders in my workshop as soon as it ended. My colleagues and I recognized that the session didn’t have the intended impact, so we immediately started problem-solving the instructional design. It took a few weeks and some emotional distance from the training to recognize that I had succumb to the very thinking traps I had been teaching people to avoid.

Reacting helps in urgent, familiar situations. On the other hand, reacting becomes counterproductive when we don’t fully understand the situation we’re facing. Reacting makes use of our habits and routines, that’s why I think of it as “re-acting.” When reacting, you operate in a mode that feels familiar and comfortable. When you go to a doctor with common, recognizable symptoms, the doctor re-acts (i.e. reenacts a familiar script). If the diagnosis and prescription don’t work, the doctor switches from reacting to responding. Responding requires more information about the current situation and a bit of reflection about alternative ways to interpret the current situation.

Here’s a question for busy leaders in plate-spinning mode: When should I stop reacting and start responding?

Leaders addicted to action, prefer to react. If the first solution doesn’t work, they try something else. As long as you’re learning from what you try, and you’re not squandering resources, reacting might be a good strategy. However, you don’t get to dress up reacting as prototyping or experimenting. Experimenting requires reflection on outcomes and thoughtful responses that control for what you want to learn.

Before I revisit the instructional design, I would be well served by taking a dose of my own medicine. I think the better question for me is: How might I help overwhelmed organizational leaders reduce the risk of missing something important, avoid solving the wrong problem, and increase the novelty of their options when they feel stuck for an answer?

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The Featured image above is from Henrik Bothe’s plate spinning routine

About Jay Cone

Jay Cone has spent the past 25 years focusing on leadership development, strategic thinking and innovation. Prior to joining Interaction Associates, Jay worked in the food service industry as a training manager, Human Resources director, and internal consultant. Jay is a thought leader for Interaction Associates’ work in teams, innovation and strategic thinking. Jay is a regular contributor to Saybrook University’s Rethinking Complexity blog. His articles on strategy and leadership development have appeared in Rotman Magazine, The Journal of Global Business and Organizational Excellence, Training Magazine, and The American Society for Training and Development's Best of Customer Service Training. Jay served on the editorial review committee for David Straus' book, How to Make Collaboration Work, and contributed a chapter on accountability to Leadership for Transformation, edited by JoAnn Danelo Barbour and Gill Robinson Hickman. Jay served for five years on the faculty of the Executive M.B.A. program at The University of Texas at Dallas, where he taught innovation and collaboration. Jay is conducting research and writing a dissertation on organizational strategy formation to complete his Ph.D. program in organizational systems. Jay's current consulting practice focuses on senior team facilitation, strategic thinking, leadership development, and innovation.