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  • Writer's pictureM. Baggetta

5 Ways to Manage Reactive People

Updated: Jul 7, 2019

Reaction vs. Response

Whether you are able to connect and respond under pressure using effective communication, or you get stuck in an emotionally reactive rut and make things worse, makes or breaks both your team's–and your company’s success.

The impact of communication breakdown on a company’s bottom line is a well-known problem for business big and small. To remedy this problem and improve communication and organizational responsiveness, let’s start by looking at a framework to better understand how your organization works.

What kind of organization are you in?

In Reinventing Organizations, Frederic Laloux uses the organizational development theory model to break down the major ways companies tend to be organized :

  1. Red - a wolf pack

  2. Orange - an army

  3. Amber - a machine

  4. Green - a family

  5. Teal - a living organism

Traditional businesses (Red/Amber/Orange) are organized into tiers of leaders, teams, managers, and subordinates. This approach is meant to refine decision making processes, help mitigate risk and define roles and responsibilities while efficiently and effectively allocating company resources, time and energy. Rigid hierarchies are used to organize massive team-based operations and decisively channel communication and action.

But what happens under stress when employee tempers flare, anxiety contagion sets in, or fear clouds the thinking and actions of your best people?

Reactivity spreads and the functioning of the organization deteriorates.

When hijacked by emotional reactivity, a team’s ability to communicate, execute plans and achieve goals is severely undermined. This puts strategic business decision making, employee happiness, and overall company success in jeopardy.

Response vs. Reaction

Reactivity happens to most people, a lot more often than is recognized. Some symptoms of a reactive team include: shouting matches, avoidance of difficult conversations, myopic perspectives, habitual mind reading, complaining or insulting, and deflection of personal responsibility.

Reactivity is like the inverse of empathy and spreads through a team via negative emotional contagion. Reactivity is dangerous because it happens outside people’s awareness and tacitly pollutes a team and organizations culture. Reactive team members tend to justify and rationalize unskillful past actions or decisions that came from emotionally reactive motivations (eg. anxiety, anger, fear).This habit is an unconscious and futile attempt to manage difficult emotions.

Reactive team members tend to justify and rationalize unskillful past actions or decisions that came from emotionally reactive motivations (eg. anxiety, fear).

How skillfully a team lead is able to guide people to thoughtful dialogue during unexpected developments–rather than mindlessly reacting to them–impacts the value the team is able to add to an organization.

People’s ability to respond rather than react fosters team collaboration. Responsive communication and dialogue is spacious, creative, grounded in facts and focused on solving problems.

Today, a small and growing segment of businesses (Green/Teal) have begun to shift and adapt to the conundrums that arise when traditional organizational models fall apart under the stress of practice. But for leaders in the majority of traditional organizations there are ways of learning to manage reactive people that can help.

The following are 5 simple and effective ways to guide reactive people towards productive, thoughtful conversations and maximize your team’s results in a traditional business organization:

1. Give intentional, balanced feedback

When presenting feedback to a colleagues’ presentation or proposal, go out of your way to provide equal amounts of positive comments and constructive criticism. If you can’t do that in the moment, ask for some time to think about what was presented before delivering your feedback, then follow up with a well thought out email.

Take an experimental approach when executing balanced feedback sessions. You can try delivering feedback in chunks (3 positive, 3 negative) or in sequence (positive, negative, positive, negative, etc.), to see which drives the most productive results.

2. Emphasize iteration

Meetings can get out of control when communication is polarized under stress. Generalizations get loosely thrown about, circumstances are exaggerated and specifics are glossed over as absolute truths.

First, notice when this starts to happen. Then, try to refocus your team on the iterative nature of the situation or project using particulars, and short, finite time-frames. Working this way throughout a sprint, cycle or project will generate high quality bursts of team interaction and increase productivity. It also opens space for mistakes to be made–and used–as fuel to optimize the end product.

3. Rephrase judgments as concerns

When tensions rise, or disputes surface there can be a tendency for people to avoid or deflect responsibility by slinging blame or leveling judgment. This type of behavior comes from an unseen extremist thought pattern that essential believes:

“Oh no, I’m all alone in my position> I’m wrong/useless/worthless>I’m going to be fired>I’m going to be broke>I’m going to lose everything>I'm going to starve and die.”

This fear-based logic overrides the rationality of perfectly reasonable, intelligent people if they’re unaware of its operation. Use empathy to snap them out of it. Connect with reactive team members by rephrasing blaming or judgemental statements in terms of concerns or frustrations and repeat them back in your own words rather than validating the underlying fear by responding to the judgment directly.

A useful communication method to guide this type of empathy is known as Nonviolent Communication:

  1. Make an observation grounded in facts

  2. Conduct an emotional self-audit to identify feelings

  3. Explore unspoken needs that are not being met

  4. Make an open-ended request aimed at getting needs met

4. Be assertive to build confidence and trust

When managing people who have to deliver a task, project or plan on a deadline, it is important to be firm right from the start and to reiterate consistent expectations throughout the process.

Limiting the possibilities of what determines success creates a container that prevents scope-creep and focuses discussions which may otherwise veer off-topic. To maintain firm expectations use phrases like: “This is what can change, this is what cannot change,” and “X, Y or Z are the only possibilities for this project.”

Eliminating unnecessary options will allow your team to focus and go in the right direction with confidence.

5. Encourage questions

Because it is so vital for your team to understand what your needs and concrete expectations for a successful project, questions are very valuable. Any confusion must be clarified through independent reasoning or questioning. Collaborators need to be aligned in outcome expectations to work well together.

Creating an open environment for questions alleviates the anxiety of being criticized for differing views, disagreement or fear of appearing ‘wrong’. Not taking unskillfully phrased questions personally, reinforces the habit of welcoming questions and creates the conditions for transparent employee engagement.

Glance in the mirror...

Being reactive yourself while trying to manage reactive people only muddies the waters and makes things more difficult. Practice noticing they way your own reactivity manifests in your actions, the way to speak to people, and your decision-making style. Are you reactive or responsive?

Notice micro-expressions on your face, tension in your muscles, nervous twitches or fidgety foot tapping. Also make a mental note of when these bodily symptoms are manifesting: What is being said? Who you are around? What is happening in your mind at that moment?

As you become familiar with what the experience of being lost in reactivity feels like in your body from moment-to-moment, and with the thought patterns and underlying negative emotions triggered in your mind, you will become more adept at noticing it in others too.

The more clearly and the more often you are able to recognize when you or others are unconsciously interacting while experiencing negative emotional contagion, the more effectively you will be at facilitating effective communication and managing your team.

Fuel and attend to your body

Working with reactive people in a productive way takes energy!

Eating healthy, exercising regularly, getting 7-8 hours sleep and easing back on chemical stimulants will help give your body the energy necessary to remain calm, present and alert in trying situations–AKA when your attention and awareness is most critical for success.

The more clearly and the more often you are able to recognize when you or others are interacting reactively in a state of negative emotional contagion, the more effectively you will be at facilitating effective communication and managing your team.

Simple, not easy

These 5 tactics may be ‘simple’, but that doesn't mean they will be easy to execute and perfectly implement on your first attempt. Brace yourself for the journey.

Be patient and diligent in your application of these tactics. Anticipate engaging employees repeatedly for positive changes in behaviour to become habits.

One last thing, the tactics in this article are for team leaders manage their teams, but they are also useful for managing up. Don’t be afraid to try them when interacting with your boss too, experiment, see what happens.

For a more detailed discussion of Teal organizations check out Frederic Laloux’s 2015 book Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage of Human Consciousness. For more information on how to use the nonviolent communication framework in the workplace check out this guide.


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