You know this situation: You say something - and you immediately regret it.
Well, chances are: you have been reactive,
I've been there more than I'd like to admit. And I've also seen that amongst executives and senior managers over and over again.
So today is about reactivity. It's about what it is, why it happens, how it is harmful, and what we could do about it.
Many things go on in the workplace. And often, they are not within our control.
We get assigned tasks that we have to complete and receive requests that we have to answer.
And especially at the beginning of our career, we don't have the authority to delegate or deflect them.
So - we have to deal with them one way or another.
And there's one very harmful way that could get you in trouble - like in the following example.
Steve's boss just received an email from an important customer.
They have a big problem with their product and are very upset about it.
So Steve's boss asked him if he could solve the problem within the day.
So, of course, Steve wants to help the critical customer with their problem. He also wants to support his boss to the best of his abilities.
Besides, he wants to prove that he's capable of coming up with a reliable solution, so he doesn't think twice, and commits to having this resolved by tomorrow.
Soon, the evening comes, the others start to go home, and he's not even close to having a solution.
Well, since Steve wants to keep his promise, he has to cancel his dinner date.
Instead, he works past midnight, until he has the issue fixed - and can finally go home.
The next morning, he comes back to the office, all sleep-deprived and exhausted.
So - what went wrong in Steve's example?
There are many external influences at work - and they can be valuable.
The customer problem allowed Steve to prove that he's a capable and valuable member of the team.
Also, he could have learned something in the process.
Well, we often try to anticipate problems and mitigate them before they occur.
But no matter how thoroughly we plan, there will always be unforeseen emergencies.
We can't avoid them, so we can't always control the chaos. But we can control our reaction to that.
How is that?
To manage our reaction, we have to understand how our brain produces these reactive responses.
Like Daniel Kahneman describes in his best-selling book "Thinking fast and slow," our brain has two operating modes: "Slow thinking" and "fast thinking."
Let's look at fast-thinking first. This mode is suitable for day to day tasks and requires little to no energy.
So we can make a lot of decisions over the day - like "Should I have tea or coffee for breakfast?" or "Should we see a romantic comedy or an action movie?"
On the other hand, to solve very complex tasks, we have to use our slow thinking mode.
It requires a lot of energy, but it is very powerful.
It helps us master the most significant problems like business considerations, complex math challenges, and all the stuff that we have to ponder about for hours, days, weeks, years, or more.
To do this, we need our slow thinking and high energy consumption brain.
Let's get back to Steve's example.
He was in a stressful situation because he wanted to help.
He also felt that his boss was under severe stress.
Hence, he became overwhelmed by the situation.
The mix of outside expectations, uncertainty, and complexity left him paralyzed.
In the heat of the moment, he didn't take the time to switch into his slow-thinking brain.
Instead, he let his fast-thinking brain come up with a snap judgment.
As a consequence, he committed to a deadline that he wasn't 100% sure of - and had to put in a nightshift.
Because when we make snap judgments, we tend to miss important aspects that can have numerous detrimental effects on our career.
You may make a contradictory statement, which in turn may jeopardize your reputation with your colleagues or potential clients.
So it's essential not to be reactive - by breaking the pattern of reactivity.
The good news is - you can do this from today forward.
The next time that you feel the urge to answer right away: Take a step back.
By doing this, you give yourself a very short but effective timeout.
It prevents snap judgment.
It also gives you enough time to go into a slow thinking mode, assess the situation, and to come up with a great answer.
The good thing is: It just takes a few seconds.
Even if they feel like ages for you, others often don't notice it at all.
Think: Can you answer the question right away?
If you can't: It's also okay to come back with an answer after a few minutes or hours.
Then, if you have an answer, say it silently in your head before you say it out loud.
By doing this, your brain has time to spot apparent mistakes, and you have a second line of defense against snap judgments.
Resist the urge to let other peoples' expectations force you into an unwanted response.
Instead, take control and make sure you have a good reply.
What if Steve would have taken a step back?
Well, he would have recognized that he needs one colleague to find the solution, and he knew that this colleague is on vacation right now.
So your challenge for today is - to slow down.
Every time you receive a request or question, take a step back and take your time.
If appropriate, you can buy some time by saying, "Interesting question" - or "Let me think about it."
If you have an answer that is okay but not excellent, it's also okay to say, "My initial judgment would be X. But I have to look at A and talk to Person B first to be sure. Let me come back to you later today."
Lastly, before you say it out loud, say it silently in your head.
Use this additional fail-safe to break the pattern of reactivity, and you will always come up with solutions that others can fully trust.