Shifting Leaders Out of Reactive Mode

“Slow down, you move too fast. You’ve got to make the moment last.” Simon and Garfunkel

We know that doing business today is defined by high complexity and rapid pace. Sophisticated, often nuanced, decisions are made quickly, and actions taken against those decisions are often executed just as fast. The most senior leaders – who continuously have multiple stakeholder groups vying for their time, attention, and focus – often find it challenging to maintain a consistent clarity needed to manage such a pace on a day-to-day basis. As a result, it’s not uncommon for executives to be drawn into a more reactive mode of operating than is ideal.

Just as a surfer needs to be fully aware of his/her body position on the board at any given moment before deciding if and how best to approach a wave, so too do leaders need to build the kind of mental and emotional awareness, in real time, to help them more effectively navigate oncoming waves.

As a means of building resilience, sustainability, and necessary impact, it is imperative for executives to function with as much intentionality (vs. reactivity), as possible in the midst of such a frenetic and complex operational pace. This means learning how to moderate internal processes rather than simply riding the momentum of activity going on in any given situation. Specifically, to the degree leaders can better learn, and master the art of being more aware of the “now,” they will be more proficient at positioning themselves for most effective output while navigating the pace of activity.

Psychologists sometimes use the term “metacognition” to reflect the process of “thinking about our thinking.” More broadly, it describes the process we use to become aware of, monitor, and eventually influence our own thinking at any given moment.

Humans are one of the very few species that have this capacity and it is believed to have some evolutionary advantage. In my own experience working with executive leaders, that evolutionary advantage is clear. The ability to think about our thinking, in the moment, is a means of building presence of mind such that we are more aware of any biases in our thinking. We also become aware of questions we may need to ask ourselves and others before making decisions. We become aware of any limiting assumptions we hold. And we become aware of new learning and perspectives.

Learning how to think about your thinking is not necessarily about slowing things down but allowing for processing in parallel. You remain fully engaged in the work at hand while simultaneously observing and listening to the thoughts and feelings you may be experiencing at the same time.

For example, say you ask for something from a member of your team that will almost certainly cause pushback or otherwise invite challenge from the team member. Certain assumptions on your part are inevitably built into that request. Additionally, it wouldn’t be uncommon for you to question whether your authority is being challenged, even if indirectly, in such a conversation.

Unrecognized assumptions or a lack of awareness of those subtle interpretations of being challenged by another can hinder a successful resolution in a situation like this. Conversely, to the degree you can recognize any assumptions you may be holding – or internal messages you may be sending – while simultaneously engaging in that potentially challenging conversation, the odds significantly increase for a more productive resolution for both you and your colleague.

So how might leaders build this ability to pay closer attention to their internal processes in the moment? As with other skill building, it’s best to start small and incrementally add challenge and practice.

Some tips to consider:

  1. Start small: Pick one meeting out of each day to use for experimenting. Take 5 minutes after that meeting, before the next to simply be quiet and ask yourself: What was interesting about what I was thinking/feeling during that meeting? How did the meeting go compared to how I was expecting/hoping it would go?Just notice your answers to these questions, do nothing else, and move on with the rest of your day.
  2. Build incrementally: Pick one meeting out of each day to use for experimenting (ideally the same meeting as above). Take 5 minutes prior to that meeting, without any distractions and ask yourself: How do I want to show up in this meeting and why? How will I know if I am showing up the way I desire?
  3. Increase difficulty: Pick one meeting out of each day (preferably the same meeting as above). Periodically during the meeting, no more than twice in a meeting at first, take 15 seconds to check in and ask yourself: What am I noticing about what I am thinking or feeling right now? What am I noticing that is interesting about what is going on inside me or inside the room right now?
  4. Practice, practice, practice: Intentionality, the ability to pay attention in the moment, the be fully present, and to be able to think about your thinking is a skill that takes practice! However, with more practice, you can build the skills necessary to engage in this “metacognition” more frequently, more real-time, and with more ease.

Simon and Garfunkel were on to something. We may not be able to affect the pace of business, but we absolutely can affect the way we pace ourselves while doing business. In turn, this will support better decision making, more effective diversity and inclusion habits, and more robust learning as a leader.

Photo by Red Zeppelin on Unsplash

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