Do you react or respond when things go wrong?
“Mom! I am the new Editor-in-Chief”! That was a month ago, when my ten year old daughter’s teacher assigned her a new responsibility for the school newspaper. She was excited and determined to do her best. That’s not how it has been for the past week when her enthusiasm has been replaced by a lot of frustration and annoyance. The deadline for submissions was yesterday and 3 journalists haven’t even begun writing their stories yet. Feeling helpless, she complained, “There is no way our paper is going to be published in time. I reminded them a million times. My teacher is going to be mad at me. But it’s not my fault! I am confused, and I don’t know what to do”.
Even though this particular instance happened with my 10-year old, this problem isn’t restricted to that age group. In fact, as an executive coach, I often see managers face similar challenges in their workplace.
There are so many factors and emotions at play here, no wonder it is confusing. There is a feeling of helplessness because you can’t do anything. There is a feeling of fear, because you will be seen as the one who failed. There is a feeling of anger because you can’t seem to influence the situation. Should you point the finger somewhere else – but it doesn’t help to blame, you have heard? Should you stand up for yourself, because you did what you could – but it was your job to get the newspaper done, and you didn’t succeed at that? Should you escalate the matter to the teacher – they have to listen to the teacher after all… but you risk losing your friends in that case.
Clarity creates simplicity and helps clear this confusion. So with that in mind, let’s look at some of the common confusions.
- React Vs. Respond
When you feel threatened, your rational thinking brain is hijacked by a more primitive reptilian brain. You are hard wired to react in this way because your brain is trying to protect you. Your most primitive survival instincts kick in and your body may even show many physical responses such as rapid breathing, an increase in your heart rate, sweating, trembling or tightening of the muscles. In short, your body is getting ready to “Fight-or-Flight”. However, at this reactionary level, you aren’t capable of processing anything rationally.
Teach yourself to choose to respond not to react. Start by recognizing that what you have is a reaction. Then take steps to calm your body down. Find out what calms you down. For some it might mean sitting in a comfortable position and focusing on their breathing. Others might enjoy a quick walk outside and enjoying nature. Some love to read their favorite book or quotes while others might enjoy listening to their favorite music. Find out what works for you. What calms you down and as soon as you find that you are in a “reactive” zone, go to your favorite activity till you find yourself in a position to be able to think clearly.
- Responsibility Vs. Fault
The person responsible for a project is often the one people turn to, when things go wrong. He is answerable for why things didn’t pan out as planned. No wonder, he is often made to feel he is at fault. That puts him right back in the reactionary stage! It is important for this person to remember the difference between taking responsibility and taking the blame (and hence shirking it!).
Responsibility can be broken down into Response-ability – it is your ability to respond. When something affects you, you can always choose how you want to respond to it. Remember, you always have a choice! When you are responsible for something, it doesn’t mean it is your fault if things don’t work out. It does, however, mean that you have the choice of responding in a way that makes the most of the situation.
This was a fantastic opportunity for my daughter to learn some critical leadership skills that will help her in every stage and in every role. She eventually came up with the following plan:
She found her go-to strategy for whenever she feels anxious or angry – She is able to calm herself down by closing her eyes and focus on her breathing for a few minutes. Instead of tackling this battle alone, she decided to engage her teammates. Without naming any names and pointing any fingers, she explained that they might not be able to publish the newspaper on time and needed their help to see if they could somehow still do it. She asked how she could help them write their articles and was surprised to learn that their biggest obstacle was not having access to a laptop. By choosing not to react, but to respond, not only did she end up with a much better outcome, but she could also create a great experience for herself and her team.
The next time you find yourself getting worked up, don’t forget to ask, “Am I reacting or am I responding”?