I discovered one of the most important leadership challenges in my first leadership position supervising a staff of doctors and nurses at a hospital: Being able to see our own contribution to problems.
I was confident, having been hired because of my skills developing teams. But, shortly after I started, the team began struggling with what I call “reactivity”: behaviors counterproductive for goals and collaboration.
Examples included people getting stuck in arguments or withdrawing from communication in frustration. These behaviors are often provoked by people leaping to conclusions rather than checking things out with each other.
What I failed to see was my contribution to the problems by my frequently asserting strong views while quickly negating other opinions. Also, I would all too often leap to judgment and criticize the staff. When I finally realized the doctors and nurses were mainly angry and unhappy with me, I was shaken and worried about failing.
Luckily, I discovered the work of the psychologist Albert Ellis. He observed that all of us will, at times, become reactive and act in ways counter to our own goals and values. Neuroscience offers a helpful explanation for this normal but illogical behavior — early in our evolution, brain centers developed which, for survival, make lightning-fast assessments of the environment leading to flight or fight reactions.
In modern times, even minor stress can activate these same pathways causing leaps to biased, faulty conclusions and emotions which drive reactive behaviors. This happens automatically and out of awareness. Since we can be blind to our reactivity, countering these tendencies requires conscious effort. We can’t rely on having previously mastered communication skills.
Based on research and experience, I have developed a four-step practice to check for our own reactivity before and after key interactions. Through this process, we get better at catching ourselves in reactivity in-the-moment.
1. The first step is recognizing our personal signs of reactivity through asking, “In what ways am I in reactivity?” or “How am I contributing to this problem?” While knowing common indicators of reactivity helps, it takes time to connect them to our personal experience. Remember, this is about learning to see our blind spots. In that first leadership position, I gradually learned I am at high risk for reactive behaviors when I feel very certain about an idea along with an urgency to convince others.
2. The second step helps counter such an urge to action by pausing to remind ourselves of our goals and the type of teamwork we want to create. This invites our best skills and creativity to emerge.
3. The third step is to move out of judgment by trying to understand others with empathy: We can ask, “Why would perfectly reasonable, well-intentioned people act this way?”
4. Finally, we prepare for conversations by suspending certainty about our views and being curious about what others’ have to say even if we disagree. The path into such conversations is to intentionally set aside the rush to solutions and assure mutual understanding and exploration of differing views as opposed to getting into debates.
Using such practices with my hospital team, I learned to pause when I felt my tell-tale certainty and urgency. Then, I would remind myself of my desire for participatory teamwork. Usually, my first action, instead of asserting my ideas, would then be to invite discussion and listen. When I eventually did express my views, I found I was less intense and provoked much less reactivity in others. After three years, I was one of the highest-rated leaders in the hospital, and teamwork was greatly improved.
This process may sound straightforward or even easy now. But it was hard work, and I have not yet cured myself of my reactivity. No one can. But we are in good company; the Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman said that after a lifetime studying psychology he is still prone to reactive thinking with overconfidence and biases. Even so, steady practice diminishes the frequency, intensity, and duration of our reactive behaviors.
Accepting reactivity as normal allows a reinterpretation of team problems. What looks like a lack of skills or personality issues is more likely a reaction to stress. Better skills are usually there to tap into. The key is finding the courage to first look at our own contribution to problems with compassion.
Neil Baker is a physician and founder, Neil Baker Consulting and Coaching.
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