Reactivity Is Pervasive: What You Can Do About It

by | Jan 11, 2024 | Organizational Health

Consciously Choosing Between Reactive and Proactive  

“I can’t even see past today.”  

We may not always say this, but we definitely feel it as we try to work and lead from a reactive state. It takes all our energy and effort to get through this day and we lack the capacity to consider long-term goals, to think strategically, or to prepare for the future.  

If you’ve been there, you know that it’s not how you want to work or to live.  

Your Two Options: Proactive or Reactive  

You have two options for the way you approach the world – proactive or reactive.  

In a proactive state, you consciously work and make progress toward goals and positive outcomes. 

In a reactive state, you are constantly alert to others and feel immense pressure to react to them – their expectations, the potential for conflict, their perception of your value.  

Here’s the thing – you are working hard in both states. In fact, in reactive state, you actually work harder because you’re experiencing a negative form of vigilance that depletes your energy rapidly.  

In both states, you’re probably accomplishing things. However, you’re fueling your brain and body differently. When you’re reactive, your body experiences higher levels of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. On the other hand, when you’re in a proactive state, your body produces higher levels of dopamine and oxytocin, both of which are powerful drivers of positive affect.  

Have you experienced this before? You wake up on high alert. You dive into emails while still in bed. You start feeling stress and pressure before your feet even hit the floor.  

The jolt of added cortisol puts you immediately at a disadvantage as you experience high, negative emotion as you get ready for the day. When you start work, you rush through a full slate of meetings. You have a long list of tasks to accomplish, so when someone comes to you with a new idea or suggestions, you’re so overwhelmed that your first reaction is frustration or anger instead of curiosity or creativity.  

When you go home, you spend your time caring for others’ needs, then go right back to your work, furiously responding to emails and making lists before collapsing into bed, only to start all over again tomorrow.  

And this is where we get stuck.  

What Happens in Reactive State?  

In reactive state, when something happens, you’re more likely to take it negatively.  

You may begin to obsess or ruminate over small issues and may develop tunnel vision when focusing on a goal or task. As a leader, narrowing your focus can cause you to miss opportunities.  

You may also find yourself focusing on issues that have already happened and obsessing over the past, rather than using your energy to find better solutions for the future. Think about how it can feel when you’re very reactive – all your energy goes toward being frustrated about situations that have happened in the past, instead of looking for opportunities to make things better in the future.  

The pressures we face decrease our visibility and we know it…but we charge forward anyway regardless of the potential pain, danger and consequences of working and living in an unsustainable fashion. 

What Happens When You Shift to Proactive Instead, and How to Do It  

What if we could get ourselves unstuck and make more decisions from a proactive stance? We would:  

  • Anticipate better 
  • Pay attention to our body’s signals and need for recovery so we could function in a high-performance state longer and more frequently  
  • Be more trustworthy because we’re leading from our own power instead of under dictates from others  
  • Increase overall wellbeing 
  • Influence better outcomes because we can see the bigger picture instead of leading with tunnel vision 
  • Be in a better condition to care for ourselves and to consider others in your decision making  

These are the traits of Energy-Inspired Leaders, the types of leaders who inspire loyalty in their teams and who can sustainably achieve high performance. These are leaders who ensure readiness in themselves and their teams as they move toward goals.   

So, how do we get to that point, to a place where we can consciously move toward a proactive state?  

  1. Awareness of our condition. When you recognize reactivity in yourself, notice it and name it. Avoid viewing yourself judgmentally – your goal is to recognize the situation, not find another way to put yourself down.  
  1. Assess the load you’re under. Reactivity is often a reaction to our attempts to take on more even when we have no additional bandwidth. When we’re reactive, something suffers – we might cross items off our list at work, but are we doing it to the detriment of our health, our wellbeing, our relationships, or our long-term success? If we see that we’re under too much pressure, we must be assertive to value our needs.  
  1. Look closely at your decision-making. Where could you shift out of reactivity to ensure your choices align with your priorities? Taking time to consciously assess your priorities can actually be the catalyst to move from reactive to proactive. Just by completing the analysis, you’re moving from the reactive part of your brain into the thinking, responsive part of your brain .  
  1. Recognize small wins. You’re not going to shift from being reactive to being completely proactive overnight. Instead, acknowledge your efforts when you’re able pull to yourself out of reactive state. Paying attention to your small wins gives you momentum, which makes it more likely for you to keep moving on a positive, proactive trajectory.  

When you begin to make these shifts, you’ll see differences begin to happen. It’s all part of the energy equation. When you’re in a reactive state, you’re working on the negative side of the energy paradigm. You’re sitting in survival or moving toward burnout and you feel stuck. You feel like you don’t have the capacity to do anything other than survive.  

If you can make even small shifts toward proactivity, you’ll see that you have power to affect outcomes and change the way you’re interacting with the world. A move toward proactivity is a move toward feeling more accomplished, satisfied, and purposeful. You have the power to affect your outcomes and to create an environment of proactivity that benefits both yourself and the people you lead.  

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