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Stimulus and response: The secret of top managers

9 February 2023

Stimulus and response: The secret of top managers

One afternoon, I rushed down to the car park in the basement after a meeting with a customer that went on longer than expected, and was in a hurry to make a scheduled phone call on the way to the airport. I quickly unlocked the car, got behind the wheel, instinctively started the engine and began to search through the contact list on my cell phone for the customer’s details. I obviously hadn’t reversed out from the parking bay at that stage, but within seconds someone was tapping vigorously on my side window. I wound it down with some degree of irritation, whereupon an elderly lady reprimanded me:

“The sign on the wall says you’re not allowed to have your engine running idle, because of noxious fumes!” To which I replied sharply: “You’d better stand back. I’m just about to pull out.”

Of course, that was incredibly rude, perhaps even inexcusable, but it was also a human reaction. Because I felt under pressure, I had spoken to the lady in an inappropriate manner, even though she was completely in the right.

We are all human, and often the supremely confident, calculating manager is only one stage removed from the prehistoric man who only knew how to play dead, run away or lash out. Something inside constantly wants us to defend ourselves, although sometimes we don’t even know what we are actually defending ourselves against.

The supposed threats are often just vague suspicions, but we respond in an uncontrolled manner, even though we would be well advised to take a deep breath and think things through first instead of immediately going full Neanderthal.

Just don’t become a Rumpelstiltskin

I think we are all familiar with situations like this, and the way the ego trap snaps shut when we are desperate, annoyed or angry. Our tolerance level sinks to rock bottom, and we act more selfishly, inconsiderately and unthinkingly than we should. We descend into a state of pure reflex, in which we no longer control anything at all, neither ourselves nor the other person – and certainly not the situation that is in need of urgent resolution. We go from being a manager who deals with things empathetically and rationally to a stimulus-response machine that mutates into a raging Rumpelstiltskin at the flick of a switch. Once the unpleasant situation is over, most of us are embarrassed by our reaction, and we have to admit to ourselves that we have been guided by our ego rather than the necessity of finding an appropriate and constructive solution.

Seen in a more sober light, we are unable to consciously separate off the stimulus that triggers us from the reaction that so-say “assails” us, but for which we are entirely responsible. In order to avoid this trap, we need the mental strength to exercise self-control. When I snapped angrily at the lady, I first hurt her feelings, then let my customer down, because I was unfocused during our conversation, and ultimately also harmed myself. I was subsequently very annoyed about my inappropriate behavior and felt ashamed that I had allowed myself to get carried away with such an immature reaction.

Why is this so important? In a management culture that values solutions above personal neuroses, the quest for knowledge above dogmatism and a mature culture of error and debate above lynch law, small-mindedness and bullying, the professionalism and greatness of a top manager manifests itself at the narrow intersection between stimulus and resonse.

Behind every impulse lurks an ego quagmire

There doesn’t necessarily have to be a rude or bullying remark for a meeting to turn into a powder keg. Sometimes, all it takes is a polite objection or a critical query for us to be triggered and hit the ceiling. As mature managers, we need to take a deep breath in such a situation and inwardly reason with ourselves:

“Now Meier is demolishing my proposal that I’ve been working on for three days and nights. Though if I’m honest, he wasn’t being harsh, but absolutely matter-of-fact, without trying to cushion the impact. Anyway, I’m not going to goad him with his quarterly figures out of revenge. I’d rather ask him what exactly he means by ‘flaws in the concept’. Maybe that will bring us closer to a better solution.”

When we give in to the first impulse and blurt out without rhyme or reason, “You again, Meier! Why don’t you first get your pathetic sales team under control”, we are already descending into the quagmire of our own ego. We cling to our precious idea because we irrationally make our self-worth dependent on it.

In panic, stress, anger or fear, we descend into what psychologists call a “tunnel”: our vision is narrowed, our range of vision restricted, and we all too easily follow base and destructive impulses.

Mental strength as an attribute of the top manager

We are not born with the necessary mental strength to stop and think between stimulus and response. We have to work hard to acquire this skill by repeatedly making ourselves aware of what has just pricked our ego. Is the other person’s behavior or comment really as hostile as we perceive it to be, or is there knowledge to be gained that we are at first reluctant to acknowledge? The more often we give consideration to this, the more mental strength becomes a natural attribute. It is what sets excellent managers apart from the vast horde of their merely average colleagues.

Matthias Kolbusa

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