Are you reacting or responding?

Woman looking at computer screen

In the midst of a crisis, particularly one the scale of the current pandemic, it is understandable to be reactive. As individuals, we will likely all have moments when we are scared for ourselves, our families, and our friends.

As leaders, however, it is imperative we pay attention to how we are showing up and operating. This includes determining if we are reacting or responding to the crisis and the changes it is imposing on our decision-making. This can make all the difference in how others are experiencing us, and to the future health of our organizations.


Reacting is about being driven by fear. It’s about making fast decisions that have not been fully thought through. It’s about solving one problem at a time and not relating to the bigger picture. For example, some companies have been shown to be purchasing spyware to “keep tabs on” their employees at home to make sure they are working. A decision like this is based on a fear that employees will not get their work done.

Responding is about setting yourself and others up for success for the short and long terms. Responding is about taking a wider view of the situation and being intentional about the path you choose.

Some leaders are also instituting multiple daily check-ins with their teams and staff to keep them on track. If we consider these kinds of decisions, we can see that leaders and organizations are trying to replicate workplace oversight. However, in solving that one problem, other issues and priorities have not been considered: morale could take a hit, as staff feel they are not trusted; the normal workday structure is not possible, as many workers also have children and families at home; and the overall relationship between employees and the organization is changing.


A more responsive approach may include taking time to understand how to support remote workers, or helping the leadership team understand the shift in mindset that is needed to lead a virtual team. Responding is about setting yourself and others up for success for the short and long terms. Responding is about taking a wider view of the situation and being intentional about the path you choose.

In a crisis, the tendency is toward quick, fast action. And that is important. But we can and must take time to think clearly about a situation too, so we are not creating bigger issues or losing people’s trust and engagement along the way.

Here are some key tips for how to be responsive as a leader, both for now and the future:

  • Be self-aware. Check in with yourself regularly. How are you feeling? Are you reacting or responding? What is your style when it comes to crisis? Our tendency toward “fight, flight, or freeze” often comes out in these emotionally charged circumstances. Are you doing any of those? Taking time to rest, relax, and reflect is crucial to ensuring you are able to respond rather than react. Your people need a steady presence now.
  • Consult with others. Sometimes it just takes a quick conversation with your team or with colleagues to help clarify what will and won’t work. Involving others also helps increase ownership of the decisions that are made. Find out what they think or what they need. Then base your actions on that rather than your own need to get things done quickly.
  • Delegate. When we are scared and reacting, we may want to hold all the work to ourselves. Not only is this not helpful, it can be destructive to our relationships and disruptive for the work. Delegate where you can and let people do their best so you can do yours too.
  • Try to do the “right thing” rather than the “right now thing.” This may seem counterintuitive while in crisis mode. But even in a crisis, leaders need to make timely, sensitive decisions that help maintain morale and contribute to a healthy culture. Being seen as at least trying to do the “right thing” is just as important as getting things done right now.
  • Focus on the moment AND the big picture. As leaders, we do not have the luxury of moving from minute to minute. As already mentioned, quick action in a crisis is important. However, focusing only on what is right in front of us means we cannot pay attention to the external or internal environment overall. This means we will not be ready for any shifts or changes that come our way and ensures we will be on a continual cycle of reaction. That is not good for our people or our businesses.

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Your people do not expect you to be a perfect leader right now. But they do expect you to lead with intention and integrity. That’s hard to do when we are in reaction mode. This moment is frightening on many levels. But it will pass. When it does, will the decisions you have made put you in a better or worse position for moving forward? Will they have engaged or alienated your employees, your partners, or your consumers?

Taking a little time and a wider view than what is right in front of you will help ensure that what you do now does not come back to haunt you later—either personally or on a wider organizational basis.

Susan Black

Lianne Picot

Learning Architect, The Niagara Institute

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