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Being responsive, not reactive

(January 8, 2023 Newsletter)

“I wish I weren’t so reactive” is a common desire expressed by my clients.

When I hear a client verbalize something they DON’T want, I’ll typically ask about the inverse: “If that’s what you don’t want, then what do you want?”

A common misconception: You’d think the opposite of reactive would always be… proactive. But in the spirit of Elie Weisel’s famous quote, “The opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s indifference,” I’ll challenge you that the opposite of reactive isn’t proactive, it’s responsive.

Why it matters: If you are challenged by being reactive, you might recognize the experience of feeling like you’re being led, pulled, tugged, pushed. There’s an undercurrent of lacking control – of letting one’s instincts dictate your next move without much forethought or choice.

  • As a leader in a company, there are indeed great dangers in being overreactive: to yourself, your team, and the broader organization.

  • Hasty decisions, flares of anger, and half-baked text messages, emails, and comments can all have outsized impact – followed by regret, maybe apologies and promises to change, or perhaps a silent request to pretend you hadn’t reacted as you did.

So why is proactive not the inverse? In a narrow way, it is, in that it implies taking action. But there is also danger of being so proactive that one makes decisions without consulting key stakeholders or ignores warnings for the sake of moving ahead. This may be better than being reactive, but not necessarily in all cases.

Now let’s get to responsiveness. It includes proactive as a subset, as one quality – but it’s not the only one. Being a responsive leader means asking probing and clarifying questions (or others and yourself!), hearing people out, and formulating thoughtful answers or plans before moving ahead.

To the naysayers… Is being responsive a fraction slower than being proactive or reactive? Yes, in most cases I imagine it is. But is that extra beat worth it? Absolutely, as it can lead to less messiness down the line.

What does it take to be a responsive leader? The ability to…

  1. Keep one’s core values top of mind, so they can serve as filters.

  2. Remember the goals to which you and your colleagues are working, so you don’t get distracted.

  3. Have an open mind, so you can combat your instinct to think you’re always right.

  4. Seek out perspectives of those with whom you don’t directly but are impacted by your decisions, so you can learn from their wisdom.

  5. Synthesize what you take in and make decisions, so you are keeping things moving.

If you were to score yourself low/medium/high on each of these five criteria, how responsive of a leader would you say you are? For the areas for which you may have given yourself a low or medium score, what steps do you want to take to improve your self-rating?

In short: As 2024 gets underway, I invite you to choose an area to focus on, such that over the coming months you can respond more intentionally to the currents that can sweep you this way or that. If you’d like support through that process, you know where to find us.


The Coaching Corner

It’s a good week to ask for feedback

If you’re not sure how to bring it up, use the top of the year as an excuse! Might I suggest phrasing along the lines of…

  • “As 2024 gets underway, I wanted to see if you have any observations to share with me about how I supervise you.”

  • “Before we get too bogged down in the grind of the year ahead, I wanted to pause and ask for feedback on my management style.”

  • "As the new year starts, what would you want to see or less of from me, as your supervisor?

Don’t forget that feedback has two components: what’s working for them + any requests for what you could be doing differently.

Don’t let the person off the hook with “no, everything’s fine” kinds of answers. Insist that there must be something; and if they really clam up, ask them to think about it and you’ll circle back in your next meeting.



You all know how important curiosity is to me, so I was excited to see this recent HBR article on cultivating curiosity at work.  Love the breakdown into a few sub-categories… it’s a good reminder that curiosity comes in all shapes and sizes.


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