We all know that reaction is rarely the best action.
As a leader, I’ve been on both the giving and receiving side of reactions.
Should Leaders Avoid “Reacting?”
Probably. But let’s dig a bit deeper.
Reactions are not inherently bad or good. They are simply responses to a stimulus or situation, and their value or impact depends on various factors, such as the context, the intention behind the reaction, and the consequences that result from it.
However, in some cases, reactions may be considered negative if they involve behaviors or actions that are hurtful, aggressive, or inappropriate. For example, reacting with anger or violence in a situation that could be resolved peacefully could harm oneself and others. Similarly, reacting with judgment or criticism without fully understanding a problem or a person’s perspective could lead to misunderstandings and conflicts.
You may be a better leader (or person) than me, but my reactions are typically less thought-through and more involuntary. And therefore, often more harmful or hurtful than necessary or intended.
Our leadership influence would grow if we replaced our reaction with something better.
I know. I know. Respond, not react.
Or maybe not…
What’s the Opposite of Reaction
A quick Google (or AI) search will give you some great antonyms for “reaction,” Such as:
- Inaction: This refers to not taking any action or not responding to a situation. In contrast to a reaction, which involves some kind of response or action, inaction involves doing nothing.
- Proaction: This refers to taking action before a situation arises to prevent problems or achieve goals. In contrast to a reaction, which is a response to a situation that has already occurred, proaction involves being proactive and taking initiative.
- Anticipation: This refers to expecting or predicting a situation and preparing for it in advance. In contrast to a reaction, which is a response to a situation that has already happened, anticipation involves looking ahead and being prepared for what might happen.
It’s this last one that really caught my attention.
I assumed my Google query would return the word “respond.” After all, that’s what we’ve always heard.
“When you react, you are giving away your power. When you respond, you are staying in control of yourself.” – Bob Proctor
“Reacting is automatic, responding is a conscious choice.” – Anonymous
So this list caught me a bit by surprise. Granted, I asked for “antonyms,” not better options. But still. As I reviewed this list, the last suggestion caught my attention.
How Can We Create More Organizational or Leadership Anticipation?
If we could anticipate better, we would react less.
Anticipation seems like a great solution to avoid adverse reactions. That’s the real problem with reactions, right? We are caught off guard, so we react. We don’t take the time to investigate or consider. We just react – like a volcano.
This question feels critical to leadership success. Especially as our leadership responsibilities grow. In my leadership life, the more responsibility I had, the more that could go wrong. The more challenging the position. The more people to lead. The more “anticipation” mattered.
The more I considered how my team and I navigated our growing church (from about 300 to over 8,000 a Sunday in a decade), the more I recognized the answer to anticipation.
But you can’t anticipate everything. You can’t know what will happen in every situation before it occurs.
Suggesting anticipation as the best alternative to reaction sounds great, but it sounds equally impractical.
Anticipation is Built Through Systems
Anticipation is a broad enough term that does allow for a better solution than living in perpetual reaction.
Anticipation means “preparing in advance.”
The best alternative to reacting is the development of systems that prepare us, our fellow leaders, and our organization in advance.
Advanced preparation allows anticipation to replace reaction.
Systems are our answer. Systems allow leaders to respond rather than react. Systems create space for leaders to prepare for what’s to come, evaluate what currently is, and improve what could and should be ahead.
When we have systems that guide us through preparation, we create margin to respond to the unplanned. For instance, when I led a church for over a decade, we meticulously planned our Sunday services to make the most of the time and create margin for the unexpected.
Lack of planning destroys the unprepared. And inevitably, something unexpected would happen during the week or on Sunday morning! Preparation systems allowed us to respond because we had an anticipation system.
When things go off the rails, leaders tend to react – quickly. And often harshly.
When we build evaluation systems, we prioritize responses over reactions. Knowing systems exist to document our good and bad experiences immediately removes much of our reactionary bias.
Back to a church example. Sunday was our super bowl. We took it very seriously, so I frequently reacted when things didn’t go well. That’s a kind way of saying what I actually did! When the service began and a lighting cue was missed, I’d text my production director. When a song was a bit off, a stage element was not perfect, or a volunteer was out of position, I quickly (immediately) informed my staff.
I reacted. A lot. In the moment. I probably would have continued my reactionary leadership ways had my production team leader not pulled me aside one day and asked me to stop. He said, and I paraphrase, “My team has worked really hard all week to create this service. We want to get it right. We want it to be perfect. And we are also watching, evaluating, and taking notes to make things better. We have a meeting every Monday to evaluate. Rather than texting and calling me every 5 seconds, how about you write this stuff down and attend the Monday evaluation meeting?”
That was his kind way of saying, “Shut up! We’ve got this! Stop reacting!!”
He was right. From that point forward, unless the building was burning down, I refused to evaluate aloud in the moment. I stopped reacting because we have a response system.
Systems acknowledge that something may go wrong, allowing us to anticipate that we’ll need to evaluate, discuss, and improve.
Keeping in chronological order, reactions may lead to better results, but they hurt too many people in the process.
Leaders understand that success is not just a result but a combination of the process and outcome. A lousy process that produces an acceptable result isn’t a success.
We can anticipate improvements when we build intentional improvement systems. If we can create a culture of improvement, we will become less apt to react, as we know those around us are dedicated to continuous improvement.
The best way to move away from reaction is to incorporate systems. Systems allow you to plan for what’s to come, evaluate what happens, and make it better for the future. When these three systems are in place, we have no need to react from being caught off guard.
Anticipatory systems support planning, evaluation, and improvements.
How are you using systems to reduce reactions?
Our only other options are reactions, inactions, and attempting to control everything and everyone through proaction. None of these feel like great leadership tools.
What do you think?
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