Why Leaders Should Respond Instead of React When Things Don’t Go as Planned

Updated Dec 21, 20226 min
Why Leaders Should Respond Instead of React When Things Don’t Go as Planned

Why Leaders Should Respond Instead of React When Things Don’t Go as Planned

Chris PienkowskiUpdated Dec 21, 20226 min
Why Leaders Should Respond Instead of React When Things Don’t Go as Planned

When something unplanned happens in your business, do you respond or react?

As leaders, we know that our actions set the tone for how things happen within our teams and organizations. Our actions affect the tempo and quality of work being done along with the way team members interact with each other, with people on other teams within our organization, and with people outside of our organization. While going through the day-to-day grind, all teams will face things that are unplanned and have the potential to create roadblocks. And guess what, the actions of our teams in these situations are also affected by the way we as leaders handle unforeseen circumstances.

Things Always Go Wrong At Some Point

When a customer complains, a part is made incorrectly, a project deliverable gets delayed, a supply chain partner suddenly goes out of business; do you respond or react? What if a blogger writes a scathing article about you? Successful leaders know that a well-executed response will carry much more weight than an off-the-cuff reaction. A timely, controlled response to an unforeseen situation shows that you, the leader, have an understanding of the issue or you are trying to gain an understanding in order to determine the best course of action. However, knee-jerk reactions to these type of situations convey the opposite message and show that you are not in control; and often does not lead to the desired outcome of achieving success in the face of adversity.

What is the difference between responding and reacting to an unplanned event?


Responding is deliberately addressing the bad situation and understanding the impact it has on your overall plan prior to taking a direct course of action. Responding to a situation initially focuses on gathering information to understand what is happening, what has caused it to happen, the severity of what is happening, and the impact(s) the situation will have on your team or business. Once you have gathered all of the relevant information and have a very clear understanding of the how, what, where, when, and why of the situation, you then look at any contingencies built into your plan that would best address how to move forward. If contingencies are not in place that address the situation at hand, you need to quickly develop a plan for moving forward. This may take the form of an initial stop-gap measure while a long-term solution is fleshed out depending on the severity of the situation. Once your plan is in place, you can give clear and concise directions that your team will use to move forward and become part of the knowledge base in your organization.


Reacting, on the other hand, is more of an action triggered by the nervous system. Sometimes, when an unforeseen negative challenge arises, people may go into a fight or flight type of behavior that causes a ripple effect of poor decisions. For leaders who are prone to immediately reacting to challenging situations, the negative impact of their emotional reaction can lead to a lack of respect from their team and peers. In addition, reactive behavior also highlights a lack of planning and preparation on the part of the leader that calls their ability to perform into question.   

With that all being said, there is a dichotomy of reactive behavior that is both good and bad. A positive reaction is an immediate action that is taken based on training and past experience. This is a conscious decision that is more likely to turn into a positive end result. A negative reaction is an impulse due to not having a plan or lack of control over your behavior.

For example: If someone begins to choke and you react by administering the Heimlich maneuver because you have that training, you could save someone’s life. Good reaction. On the other hand, if you learn that supplies you need are out of stock for another week and you go into panic mode trying to come up with another solution, you could make poor decisions that make the situation worse. Bad reaction.

Best Practices

When a challenging situation presents itself, the very first thing a good leader does is stop and take a deep breath. That initial pause, if only for a few seconds, allows you to assess what is going on and determine your course of action. Developing this approach helps you to remain calm and outwardly demonstrate that you are in control of your emotions. This will have a tremendously positive effect on your well-being as well as that of your team and anyone else involved in the situation.

While the practice of pausing and taking a deep breath is a great first step in addressing a challenging situation, you can’t stop there. Your next step(s) will be your response which is guided by preparation. 

The Three P's

To be better prepared and become a more response-driven leader, get better with the three P’s – Process, Planning, and Practice.

Process - This is how your organization does things and shares that information internally. I’m a fan of simplicity and studies of great companies show this to be true as well. Great companies have, on average, 9 core processes that drive their business model. Processes are prescriptive methods of executing the operations of your business.

Planning - Look forward to where you want to be in the next three to five years and work backward to determine what needs to be done to reach that end goal. Planning and communicating those plans throughout your organization will help you to properly address unplanned situations and determine how they will impact your ability to reach your goals.

Practice - Get yourself into the habit of extracting pertinent information in order to come up with the simplest solution. When an unplanned situation arises, getting into the habit of starting with questions about the who, what, where, when, why, and how, will give you the baseline information to use moving forward.

Once your facts have been gathered, you start to look for solutions that are already in place in your processes and understand how to apply the solutions to stay on track with your long-term plans. Once you have mastered the behaviors of Process, Planning, and Practice, you will be in a much better position to be response-driven when the time comes.

In the words of my favorite Founding Father, Benjamin Franklin – “When you fail to plan. You are planning to fail.” And keeping this in mind will ensure your ability to respond instead of reacting when unforeseen challenges come your way.

Chris Helps Companies Retain Talent By Ensuring the Success of New and Emerging Managers Through Leadership Development and Coaching
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