CWS Technology

To Be Effective Be Responsive, Not Reactive

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In project work, it is often necessary to act quickly and decisively as things change and situations arise. These changes and conditions might include the loss of a resource without notice, the discovery of a serious design flaw or significant new requirements, all in the face of a committed deadline and budget.

Reactive vs. Responsive

The need to act quickly may be an excuse for reactive behaviour. Reactive behaviour is an action taken without sufficient thought or planning. It is one of the key causes of poor individual and project performance.

Effective performance requires responsiveness. Responsiveness implies thoughtful action that considers long and short-term outcomes. Reactive behaviour is immediate and without conscious thought, like a knee-jerk response. Emotions often drive reactive behaviour.

The Place for Immediate Action

There is a place for immediate action with no more of a second or two of thinking.

You are confronted by a mountain lion out in the woods. There is no time to consider the consequences of your actions analytically. If you are a well-trained woods person, you will immediately know what to do, and you’ll do it. If you are not accustomed to confronting lions in the bush, you might still react, but perhaps not so skillfully. Your fight or flight reaction will kick in, and you might freeze, run, or cry. The lion might take your reaction as a threat or an invitation to chase you down and eat you.

The problem with reactive behaviour is that it will likely be the wrong behaviour for the situation. Responsive behaviour includes immediate “blink” and more measured responses based on analysing options’ pros and cons and consequences.

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In Project Situations, There is Time To Think

Fortunately, most issues confronted in projects are not life-or-death situations requiring immediate reaction. There is time to think. Sometimes there is not a lot of time to think, but usually, there is not only time for one person to believe, but there is time for some degree of collective thought and dialogue.

Of course, we don’t want to get caught up in analysis paralysis, attempting to come to a consensus on every decision through study, dialogue and debate that might take weeks when we only have minutes, hours or days to decide. We want to find the right balance point, degree of analysis, and consensus process for the situation.

Emotional vs Rational Thinking Making

Take, for example, a situation in which a target date has been set for a major deliverable in a project, like a decision on the architectural design for a product that will drive the rest of the project and significantly influence post-project sales and use of the product. As the target is approaching, it is discovered that additional testing of the alternatives is required to satisfy the technical groups who have been asked to compare and score the options based on technical considerations. The testing will take several weeks longer than the time remaining to hit the target. The target has been set by senior executives, who view it as critical to hit for political reasons.

The project manager is faced with a dilemma. Do they make a decision that is unsound technically and may lead to more delays and changes down the road to hit the immediate target, or do they go to the executives and tell them that the target will not be met?

The decision could be made based on emotional or rational thinking. Emotional thinking is driven by anger, fear, greed or aversion. Sometimes, it can appear to be analytical thinking.

There may be discussion, and facts may be looked at, but in the end, the decision is made based on reaction to the emotions rather than the objective realities of the situation.

Rational thinking may consider emotions and subjective issues but is not driven by them. An expert project manager can often make a highly effective decision by weighing his emotional and personal responses and those of his team, clients, and sponsors. Rational thinking is more than just analytical and numbers. The analysis results and numbers are inputs to a complex process.

In our design decision situation, the emotional decision would probably be driven by fear. It would end up telling the technical group that they will have to make their evaluation without having the results of the desired tests – we’ll get to that later, and if worse comes to worst, we will have to change our decision. A rational decision would probably be to advise the executives of the situation and inform them that there will be a delay unless they insist upon meeting the target date, telling them that if they do insist, the consequences may be very costly.

The executives could hit the target date based on their emotions or a measured assessment of the pros and cons. It’s their decision, and they’ll have to live with it (or find a way to blame someone else for the fallout.)

Difference Between Reactivity and Responsiveness

Telling the difference between reactivity and responsiveness is a challenge.

It is necessary to know what it feels like to be driven by emotions and what it feels like to be in the driver’s seat, managing emotions and applying rational thinking. Knowing what these conditions feel like requires emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence, in turn, involves mindfulness that allows the individual to step back from their emotions and the feelings they bring up, viewing them objectively and not getting caught in reactivity.

Knowing the difference, there is choice and responsiveness. Not knowing the difference, there is reactivity.


To conclude, project work requires responsiveness. Responsiveness is the ability to act quickly and thoughtfully, considering the situation’s long and short-term outcomes. Reactivity is the tendency to act impulsively and emotionally without considering consequences. Therefore, project managers and team members should strive to develop their responsiveness skills and avoid reactivity.

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