Hot Buttons Still Get Pushed

Here’s what happened:

Driving home from the gym one night, suddenly, right on my tail, there appears a mammoth SUV with a front grill like dinosaur teeth and headlights glaring through my back window.

What’s a hot button for you? A biggie for me is when people tail gate me.

Immediately I feel a slow steam build inside me. As we pull up at a red light at my upcoming left turn I flail my right arm in a motion that shouts, “back off, buddy.” The light changes, I make my turn and then swing sharply over to the curb. As the “evil aggressor” drives by me I reach deep into the primitive section of my brain and come up with the fiercest glare I can muster. That fixed her (yes, my newest nemesis is a woman), I think, Now she’ll drive on and I can resume my journey.

Not so. She pulls over to the curb just a few car lengths ahead. Maybe I’ll wait her out. No, that would be a sissy thing to do. I should rise above her counter-provocation and drive on past her. So, I do. She, in turn, rejoins the traffic with only one car between us–a welcome buffer. But then that car turns right. The beast has me where she wants me.

My street comes up and I turn right. So does she. The ante has just shot up. I quickly consider my options:

  1. I would love to go around and around the same block until she tires of the game. No, that would just taunt her and escalate this more.
  2. I can pull over right here and have it out with her. Nope. I’m a tad nervous about a face-to-face confrontation with her. I’d rather keep us in our respective vehicles.
  3. Maybe I should just carry on home and she can bring the confrontation to me if she wants to. This would be the “high road” on my part…of course, she will find out where I live. She (and her big boyfriend–she may have one) may come back in the middle of the night and slash my tires.

I select option #3. As I pull into my driveway, I see that she is idling by the curb about a block from my home. Then she drives off.

So what?:

First of all, in my little road drama I was operating out of the reactive dimension. The “reactive level” of thinking, according to the wonderful model used by The Leadership Circle, is where our thinking, decisions and behavior are determined more by our need to cope with what we don’t want than by a desire to bring into being what we do want.

I wanted to control my tail gaiter’s behavior–and punish her for it–through overblown arm flailing and aggressive glaring.

Secondly, at least in the early part of the story, I was not aware that I was using reactive strategies. When I waved my arm and fixed my glare, the situation “had” me. At those precise moments there was no “adult supervision” in my head. It was only when I had a chance to consider other choices to bring this episode to a calm, safe conclusion, that I was able to overrule my reactive instincts with decisions that moved me in a direction that I wanted.

I know this stuff. I regularly work with managers to help them migrate from a reactive leadership orientation to the next level up, called outcome-creating. For a manager operating with this orientation, the ceiling comes off the maximum level of results he or she can achieve.

I believe I am personally making progress toward predominantly outcome-creating thinking and acting. My recent road saga, however, is a humbling reminder that I still have one foot hanging back in the reactive level.

So, the next time I have someone on my rear bumper, I plan to breath deeply and realize that this is not about me and the invasion of my personal space. My journey continues…