Over the last few years I’ve worked with a number of senior executives who are hardworking and wonderfully competent in their areas of expertise, but are so highly reactive that they create extra burdens for themselves and their organizations.
Overreactors typically have a great and visible sense of urgency: Whatever is a problem for them is a problem RIGHT NOW; whatever is important to them must be addressed RIGHT NOW; and whatever they’re curious about should have been explored yesterday.
These excessively reactive folks show many of the classic characteristics of what used to be called the “Type-A” personality: ambitious over-achievers who rose to every challenge and took on every comer, but as stressed-out workaholics, they often risked their own health while striving for success.
Now that organizations have become simultaneously flatter and more matrixed, emphasizing nimbleness and avoiding bureaucracy, today’s overreactors may actually endanger resources, teamwork, and other aspects of organizational health.
Team of One?
When overreactors are in positions of authority or influence, others jump — to please them, in fear of them, or because it’s easier than trying to change their minds. They love the idea of teamwork but they’re usually not team players themselves — not unless they’re captain, that is. This driven — and driving — behavior is so normal to them that they keep pushing even when no one else is competing and there is no real urgency.
Overreactors have extremely — often unrealistically — high standards for those around them. They also expect a great deal of loyalty, and left to their own instincts, can be quick to write off anyone who seems opposed to their view — as well as those who don’t respond to their frequent “all hands on deck” declarations. They often assume that people who aren’t as visibly and intensely involved or concerned do not care at all, or care about the wrong things.
Thanks, I’ll Drive
Overreactors like big goals that include the potential for big success. They need to be the driver of processes and projects, and don’t feel comfortable in the passenger’s seat or “sitting in traffic;” they’ll change lanes just to know that they’re moving. They’re afraid of feeling stuck, constrained, and unaccomplished.
So it’s common for overreactors to feel anxious when they’re not seeing enough action or significant progress. They’re not necessarily looking ahead for the optimal solution, just one that feels better now. They may actually bridle and bristle when someone suggests “taking the long view” or waiting to see how things shake out.
They seem to need the relief — whether it’s a sense of comfort or closure — of getting things off their lists, desks, and minds, of being able to say, “There! That’s done!” Whatever it is that completion means to them, the feelings of satisfaction and relief, that sense of “Ahhhh!” is palpable.
They need this feeling of resolution so badly that on some visceral, emotional level they’re more comfortable putting out fire after fire than working slowly and carefully to ensure that the embers from one hurriedly quenched burn don’t reignite with every passing breeze.
Overreactors are dedicated and well-meaning, but when they push their strengths too far, those strengths can become weaknesses. As valuable as they are, these “drivers and strivers” create problems for themselves: Their belief in their own competence and strong drive, coupled with their need for closure and success, can lead them to assume that no one else can ever get the results that they get. They may not recognize others’ unique strengths or the contributions their teammates can make.
Plus, because their own effort and output is so high, highly reactive people can feel wronged or treated unfairly if they’re not perceived as being the best. So their ability to collaborate, to motivate, and to build a supportive culture is often compromised.
And yet, despite the problems and tension they can cause, overreactors have a lot to offer. They have a huge appetite for work. They’re deeply dedicated, have high energy levels, and are happy to be on the go from morning to night. Because they’re not afraid to be disruptive, whenever there’s a major shift that needs to be made, they can be the best people to make it, so long as they don’t send organizations on wild goose chases or leave everybody chasing their own tails.
So how do you make the most of overreactors? If you’re dealing with an overly reactive colleague, try some tactics for improving teamwork — whether you report to them, they report to you, or you have to coexist productively. And if you recognize yourself in these descriptions, focus on how to shift from excessive reactivity to a more measured kind of reflection and response.
Onward and upward,