How’s Your Ability to Respond?

Dr. Stephen Covey in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People takes apart the word “responsibility.” He suggests looking at this word as two separate elements:

  • Response
  • Ability

In other words, we have an ability to respond. One of the things that humans have that most animals don’t have is this ability to choose how we will respond to stimuli. Animals react instinctively. Some managers I know do as well…

In fact, much of the time we do a lot of things automatically and according to our animal instincts, sometimes with grace, other times to our detriment. There is safety and comfort in doing what we’ve always done, and a good deal of efficiency in doing routine tasks at an unconscious level.

They say that 80% of the time we’re on autopilot. This can be a good thing, for example, when we jump back from a car splashing muddy water or when we reach out to stop our child from falling.

Imagine if you had to think through the steps involved each time you drove your car, made a phone call or withdrew money from an ATM. It would be exhausting to have to do those things as deliberately as we did the first time we learned to do them.

But along with those time and energy-saving unconscious acts, are other automatic habits, some of them negative and self-limiting. They also lead us to failures of personal accountability.

Let me tell you a few stories of how this happens. Your son asks you for extra money and before he can explain, you tell him why he can’t have it. You automatically say “no” because this is a habit you’ve developed, you assume you already know what he’s going to say.

An employee asks for time off and you automatically respond with “no,” based on prior experiences, but without listening to current circumstances.

Your default response becomes automatic because of assumptions and beliefs already formed about the persons asking you for a response. You automatically don’t listen. You automatically assume and judge but without adequate information.

You save yourself time, but you limit yourself. You restrict your world and the amount of information coming into it. You aren’t advised of what’s really going on in your own home or with your own people at work. You don’t use your abilities to respond because you revert to automatic assumptions and beliefs.

These two examples are highly exaggerated… probably. You probably do a better job of listening than this, and you try to make sure you understand a situation before responding “no.”

Or do you? Let’s try an experiment. In the next few days, observe yourself listening to people when they ask you for something. How many questions do you ask them before responding?

Some managers I know subconsciously try to impress others with their ability to size things up and respond quickly. They want to appear smart. This limits communications and restricts relationships. It actually goes against a manager “looking smart.”

You can’t have responsibility without adequate listening before responding. And I don’t know many people who can’t improve their “ability to respond.”

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