Stop being a sheep in business: How to avoid knee jerk reactions

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It’s long been suggested that people are like sheep and function in a herd-mentality. It would seem reason, independent thought and an ability to be different fail when people are among a pack. This is called a herd-mentality and it leads to responding to situations off impulse, not clear thinking. 

There’s no shortage of examples to back up this unfortunate reality. During the last US financial crisis, it was reported in Reuters that Gregory Berns, a neuroeconomist at Emory University in Atlanta, concluded based off MRI scans that: 

“Brain and behavior studies clearly show that when information is scarce and threats seem imminent, people often stop listening to their own logic and look to see what others are doing.” 

While I’m no scientist, to me, evidence that people follow people can be seen much closer to home. During the outbreak of Coronavirus (Covid-19), the media perpetuated a message that Australia was under attack by this nasty virus. 

We do face a tough battle to get through it, but that doesn’t mean herds of people need to rush out and buy every roll of toilet paper they can get their hands on. One person did this first, then it was seen and copied by others and now we have grocery store shelves stripped bare of essential items. The irony is contracting the virus won’t make you go to the bathroom any more than normal. 

This sheep-mentality often manifests itself in the form of responding to situations on impulse. It’s like when a sheep gets skittish and has a knee jerk reaction to an assumed threat. 

This is similar to how humans behave when a threat is imminent. Many stop listening to reason (or their known logic) and look to see what others are doing. If those others have a knee jerk reaction to something, everybody following will do so too. 

A knee-jerk reaction is best described as ‘an immediate unthinking emotional reaction produced by an event or statement to which the reacting person is highly sensitive.’

In business, acting on incorrect impulses (or knee-jerk reactions) will kill progress and see you making the wrong decisions. 

Resilience the key to combating knee-jerk reactions 

The greatest weapon you have in your arsenal to combat the negativity thrown your way by others is resilience. 

Given the chance some people will jump at the opportunity to tell you why you’ll fail, how you’ll fail and when you’ll fail. If this happens, take stock of the situation and realise they most likely want you to fail because they did too. 

It’s understandable that your knee-jerk reaction would be to tell them to get f***ed but that’s not going to do much. Instead, prove them wrong and succeed. 

Take inspiration from this. So many people who have succeeded were told they wouldn’t. 

Elvis Presley was told after a gig by a concert hall manager in Nashville to return home and keep driving trucks (which was his former career). 

Steve Jobs got the boot from his own company, but bounced back and took the reins again. 

Oprah Winfrey got publicly fired from her first television reporting job for getting “too emotionally invested in her stories.”

Abraham Lincoln entered his military service as a Captain but came back a Private (a much lower position). He then ailed many times at business and lost several campaigns in politics before becoming president. 

Thomas Edison's teachers told him he was “too stupid to learn anything.”

Walt Disney was fired from the Kansas City Star because his editor felt he “lacked imagination and had no good ideas.”

Despite the barrage of people telling them they couldn’t, the success stories above prove that if you’re prepared to keep moving forward nothing will stop you. They didn’t quit or cave in to pressure, they believed in themselves enough to not react poorly to how they were treated. 

How to avoid knee-jerk reactions 

It’s easy to assume you’re a leader and don’t follow the herd mentality, but in reality it’s a lot tougher to actually do it. Group pressures are difficult to break and when everybody else is doing something, being the only one to do it differently can seem brave.  

How many times have you seen a situation in public - like racism on a train - and thought that wasn’t right but never made a stand? We’ve all been in positions like this and done nothing, so I’m not judging. 

But to be a true leader and make decisions that benefit you and your business (not what others think is best), you need to be equipped with the tools to avoid knee-jerk reactions. 

Positive mindset: You have to be positive about yourself and what you want to achieve in order to push through the negativity you will face. Keep telling yourself that you are powerful and can smash through any obstacle in your way. Having a positive mindset is vital to your personal development and a topic I’ve written about before. The more positive you can be about yourself, the greater chance you have of success. 

Inform yourself: Decisions made from an informed place trump those made on the fly. Ultimately, knee-jerk reactions are made on the fly and serve no purpose beyond the initial outburst. Being informed means knowing what your purpose is and how you’re going to live it in business and life. An informed decision comes from doing your own research so you know it to be true so you don’t have to listen to and rely on what others tell you. 

Be the leader you want to be: Being an authentic leader means you have a vision and mission for what you want to achieve. Without a vision and a mission to execute it, you’ll cave to external pressures and inevitably end up following others like a pack of sheep. From 2013-15, Hawthorn won three premierships in a row and while others did their best to follow the Hawks game plan, none were good enough to beat it. It wasn’t until another coach developed a different game style that a new football dynasty was created. Now other teams are trying to match the way Richmond plays football. Copying someone or something else will only get you so far.

Have a contingency plan: I’m sure you have done a SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) and that will, to a degree, stop you from making knee-jerk decisions in business, but you need to go a step further. Put in place a contingency plan for when the things mentioned in your SWOT analysis happen. That way you’ll be able to capitalise on your strengths and opportunities but mitigate your weaknesses and threats. 

The reality is, nothing worth doing is easy and the more you’re seen to be doing something outside of the norm, the more it will confront others and solicit a negative reaction in them. 

This will be displayed in comments and opinions directed towards you, but truthfully it’s about them and their inability to show the courage you have in breaking free from the herd and doing things differently. 

The world doesn’t remember the sheep. It remembers those that have pushed through adversity, those that have had a vision for a better way and those that have stayed true to their purpose. 

If you have these three things in place, you’ll go a great way towards fulfilling your mission and avoid responding to situations with a knee-jerk reaction. 

While I don’t consider him a great modern day philosopher, it’s hard to find a better assessment of a knee-jerk reaction than that of Fred Durst, lead singer of Limp Bizkit. 

“When I look back on my knee-jerk reactions now, I realise I should have just taken a breath.”


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