In this adaptation of Newton’s third law, we acknowledge that in our work life (and likely elsewhere as well), whatever we do or don’t do will result in a reaction. What kind of reaction? 

Consider these situations:

  • We raise our prices, and our competitor advertises that they have lower prices.
  • We compliment a co-worker and they try all the harder to please us.
  • We fail to follow through on a commitment, and the next time a prize assignment is delegated it goes to someone else.
  • We come to work in a bad mood, not wanting to be there, and we have a bad day.

This concept seems obvious, but the human tendency is to focus on just the opposite:

  • “That darned competitor is beating us up on pricing again. Why are they doing that to us?”
  • “She sure is doing a good job, but if I say anything about it to her she’ll just get a big head.”
  • “Why is it that everyone else always gets all the good assignments? It's not fair!”
  • “I had a terrible day. This job sucks! I think I’ll look elsewhere.”

While we are never in complete control of our surroundings, we have far more impact on our condition than some people care to realize. They come to believe they are victims, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: they do not have control over their circumstances either because they have relinquished that control to others, or because they have failed to take hold of those elements that they do have personal control over. 

Conversely, we gain control over our circumstances when we take responsibility for those circumstances. Put another way, we have more control of the reaction if we acknowledge that it is impacted by our own action or inaction.

It is important to recognize that the truth of this adage only increases with the stature of our positions. The higher we are on the organizational chart the more impact even minor actions will have. If the boss walks in the door with a scowl instead of a smile, the whole place reacts. If the janitor is in a bad mood, few may notice. Similarly, if the receptionist compliments a middle manager for a job well done, it is appreciated but perhaps quickly forgotten. If the president of the firm makes the same comment to the same individual, it has an incredibly positive and long-lasting impact.

Some specific tools to help you apply this concept include:

Anticipate

Develop the habit of subconsciously asking yourself what the reaction might be when you make a decision or make a comment.

In planning a meeting or preparing to make a decision, decide what kind of a reaction you want, then make plans in support of that reaction.

Acknowledge

If you are in an influential or high-profile position, recognize that even the smallest of comments or actions can have a profound impact on those around you. Seemingly innocuous factors such as how long you take for lunch, or your body language during a meeting, need to be considered.

Be prepared to take responsibility for the reactions to your actions. Take ownership. Be conscious that the reactions of others are influenced heavily by what you say and do.

Acknowledge that some actions that cause negative reactions are simply necessary and unavoidable. When possible, take additional action to help mitigate the negative reaction. This could be as straightforward as communicating to the affected individuals why the action was necessary.

Ask

Ask for both proactive and reactive feedback. Before you have a tough decision to make that will impact others, ask for input before making the decision.  Periodically ask a trusted associate to share with you how others might respond and how you can improve. Frequent feedback can raise your awareness of even minor changes in reaction.

Act

Recognize that inaction causes a reaction just as action causes a reaction. We should never close our eyes and hope that a situation will become better on its own. Make it a decision instead of settling for a consequence.

Use your leadership influence to move your organization forward, to help others, not to manipulate or for selfish purposes.

Dave Bartholomew is retired after a career as a business adviser to leaders around the world. He and his wife Nancy also owned Simply Living Farm, a retailer of goods for a sustainable life. Prior to that he was CEO of several manufacturing companies in the outdoor recreation industry. He has authored three books, written numerous regular columns and taught at many universities. He can be reached at dave@ascentadvising.com.

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