Business Culture: Understand reaction vs. response

Business Culture

Here’s a thing that impacts business culture more than we admit: whether your company and its managers understand “reaction” vs “response.” They are inherently different things, but I’d auger most people think they are synonyms. A lot of business culture problems are going to emerge when that’s the case.

In this post, let’s try and define both concepts, explain why it can cause issues, and potentially solve it. A tall order? Perhaps. But business culture is important, so let’s hit the targets.

Business culture: How is “reaction” different from “response?”

“Reaction” tends to be quicker. It can almost make the recipient feel on the defensive. “Response” tends to be thoughtful and contain reasoning. Here’s a good primer. “Reaction” is more instinctual and tied to our “reptilian” brain; “response” is a bit more evolved and tied to our developed brain.

Let’s use a basic work sample. You send a project to your boss.

If your boss chooses “reaction,” you get an e-mail 12 seconds later claiming that the first two sentences aren’t in the right format.

If your boss chooses “response,” he/she waits to look at anything until there’s proper time to evaluate it, evaluates it, and comes back to you with ideas and context on where the project stands.

You beginning to see how this would have implications on business culture?

Business culture: There must be both reaction and response

I’m not arguing that a workplace should be all response. That’s impossible. It would also probably make your workplace seem like erudite bullshit where stuff isn’t really moving; there’s too much thoughtful back-and-forth. Honestly, you’d probably quit a job like that simply because you’d be so confused about what’s happening day-to-day.

Some situations require reaction — and this cuts both ways. A “good” reaction situation might be quickly resolving a customer issue. That’s good for business and logical. The problem with a lot of business culture is that “reaction” is the de facto state for many managers. It’s all one-thing-to-the-next and everything-is-an-urgent-crisis bullshit. We’ve all had bosses like this. There’s about a dozen types.

Here’s the psychology of all this too: a lot of times, people become managers and think “Oh, now I’m part of the power circle!” Within about six weeks, they realize the real decision-makers are just kicking them bullshit projects. The managers become frustrated (and kill the economy in the process). Because their jobs are now devoid of purpose, they go in search of it. One of the easiest ways to show your relevance to a superior is the “Backwards Fire” approach. In short, you create a fire (flare-up at work), solve it, then go tell everyone how you solved it.

In that way, “reaction” — the hair-on-fire Chinese fire drill moments we’ve all lived through — is necessary for managers to feel valuable within a business culture.

Why is too much reaction bad for business culture?

People mostly get burnt out on bosses and pointless tasks — and/or no opportunity for salary escalation. These reaction-driven bosses tend to be big on “sense of urgency.” Every project is major and must be done immediately — but it also has to be perfect. That’s a lot of demands on a human being, especially when they hit 400 of these urgent goals in a year and get a 0.7% raise. Their boss tells ’em, “Well, we just don’t have the resources this year. Next year!” A few days later, they see their boss pull out of the garage. New Mercedes. We’ve all known situations like this.


Basically, you can’t jerk a person around for 4.6 years (average North American job tenure right now) on a bunch of supposedly urgent stuff and then not reward or recognize them. If your default status is “reaction” and you correspond it with hiding behind once-a-year reviews and email, well, you’re a terrible manager. There’s no other way to say it. Terrible managers create turnover. None of this is rocket science but, many of us ignore or miss the basic idea.

Business culture: Can managers get better at response?

Some can, obviously. Not all. Most of it would come from internal self-awareness. In short:

Wrote this post last week about “achievement vs. fulfillment.” I referenced this Tim Ferriss-Tony Robbins podcast in that blog. Robbins has a good line in there about business culture.

Here’s the set up: once you move past 2-3 employees, the law of averages is not on your side. If you have 10 employees, there’s a good chance that, at some point in the day, someone will screw something up. If you have 20, there’s a bigger chance. What if you have 10,000? 75,000? There’s a chance something is being screwed up at every second.

You’ve got two choices in this situation: “reaction” — hair-on-fire screeching about everything — or “response,” where you realize problems will happen and you deal with things thoughtfully as they arise.

Point is: the problems will be there. Your business culture is defined by how your front-line managers respond to ’em.

Anything else on business culture in this context?

Ted Bauer

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