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Henley Leadership Group Blog

How To Press Pause On Knee-Jerk Reactions

Reactivity 600x300 Shutterstock_2157985519

Your brain is wired for survival and reactivity. This shouldn’t be news to you.Reactive responses are firmly embedded in the human nervous system. Once we develop a way of relating to the world —usually in childhood — the neurons in our young brains grow to reinforce this. Neural networks are created so that the brain can take shortcuts and not have to think so hard about what to do next. This can be helpful, especially in threatening circumstances. But it also means that we respond habitually over and over in the same way from patterns established when we were very young. 

A lot of fast decision-making involves the amygdala, which is commonly thought to form the core of a neural system for processing fearful and threatening stimuli. Neuroleadership expert David Rock explains why this can sometimes create problems for us: 

When the amygdala is aroused it makes accidental connections, misinterpreting incoming data. This misinterpretation happens through a rule of generalizing. This happens because the way the amygdala holds memories with a “low resolution” — only a small amount of data. When real danger is present, this is useful. But the amygdala’s approximation of threatening memories also increases the likelihood of errors. 

This means that when your brain signals distress, when it’s reactive, it could make a mountain out of a molehill. In other words, your brain thinks this upset is a lot like that upset, even when it’s not. Regardless, the neural program that was developed so many years ago hits “play” and off you go reacting the way you often do. Like it’s hard-wired. 

Being reactive at work could sound like: 

My boss just criticized me in front of my team. He shouldn’t be so disrespectful.


Since I’m not in the office in person, my input and perspective aren’t even considered. How rude. I should be invited to weigh in, even though I work from home.

You feel angry. You want to blame someone. You want justice. 

Anger and reactivity aren’t all bad. They are signals that something isn’t working for you. It may be a boundary crossed, or a clash of values. It could be a warning sign that miscommunication has taken its toll. Your challenge is to quiet your reactive mind and find out what’s happening below the surface. 

What are you really upset about?

In other words, stop your reactivity. Take a pause. Breathe. Wait. Create a bit of space for new thoughts, ideas and actions to come into your brain. 

When you are busy and overwhelmed, there are not enough resources available for conscious processing. Then the brain takes the inevitable shortcut and signals habitual behavior. The outcome? Most often: drama. 

As a leader, it’s important to move out of drama and reactivity. You have to shift your focus from problems to what you want to create. Redirecting negative thoughts by becoming outcome-oriented activates the parts of the brain that improve attention and decision-making. Drama will be reduced, and the thinking brain will become your partner as you choose your response to events that unfold at work. 

Being a leader isn’t about being super-human. It doesn’t mean that you won’t be reactive or get angry or upset. How quickly you catch yourself being reactive and shift to something much more empowering for yourself and others — that is what matters most.

Previously published on Forbes