Management Your instantaneous first reaction

Knee Jerks

There was a fight on the roller hockey rink this morning. Anaheim bumped into Philadelphia at speed and Philly didn’t like that so he elbowed Anaheim in the chest — hard. Anaheim pushed back, shoving Philly into the goal where he tripped and fell. Swearing, more shoving, and then we spent the next five minutes keeping them separated.

This hockey rink is a remnant of first Internet bubble. Built by Netscape, the rink has held a game every Saturday since 1996. A majority of the folks who show up know each other, so the game is mellow. Finesse, not fighting. A fight is an unusual once a year thing.

When Philly, who I believed was at fault for this whole situation, got the bench, someone asked him what happened. His answer, “Anaheim ran into me and I protected myself.”

One Eighth of a Second

I want you to think of the last time you were surprised. Good, bad, I don’t care. When was the last time you were really surprised? Got it? Ok, now think about the very first thing that you thought about the surprise. I don’t want to know how you eventually handled it; I want you to think about your instantaneous first reaction.

How do you react when you’re surprised? Is this how you always react when a surprise lands? My guess is yes.

On the hockey rink, Philadelphia puts up his shields when he’s surprised. It’s a natural reaction, protecting yourself, but what’s interesting isn’t Philly’s very sensible reaction to the perception of being attacked, it’s everyone else’s interpretation. We all saw him hold up his arms in defense of Anaheim’s unintentional attack and we all thought, “Man, Philly. What a goon.”

In any group of people larger than one, these instantaneous reactions to unexpected situations happen a lot, and understanding their range and impact is important to navigating awkward, tension-filled, and professionally tricky situations.

The Jerks

These are knee jerk reactions, and the first thing you need to know about them is that they should be first viewed without judgement. I’m not a psychologist and I don’t know why some people are aggressive knee jerkers and others are passive. I don’t know if these reactions are a function of upbringing or genetics, but I do know that we as a species have little control over these initial reactions and there are many of them.

In my head, the complete set of reactions fit on a spectrum that is labeled Fight or Flight. The first step in understanding a knee jerk reaction is first figuring out where on this spectrum the reaction lies. Is this a person who is going to take on the surprise or are they going to let it wash over them? Will they bolt? Will they wilt? If there is one thing you want to know quickly about those around you, it’s their penchant to fight the surprise or flee it.

Again, no judgement. A person who automatically has the fight instinct is not necessarily a jerk — it’s just the default instinct when the world unexpectedly and rapidly changes. I know who on my team will attack a surprise. They’ll leap on it. I also know the ones who will silently digest the surprise. I know who is going to come back three hours or three days later with a totally different attitude because they’ll have actually processed the surprise.

The base assessment of fight or flight gives you a starting point regarding what might first happen when a surprise lands, but there are other instantaneous reactions that occur and understanding them gives you an idea of what you need to do next, if anything.

For the sake of this article, my assumption is a surprise has landed and it’s bad news. These reactions apply regardless of the type of surprise, but let’s assume it’s professionally bad news with negative consequences and it’s being delivered in a group setting. Here’s whom you might see across the table:

Dr. No. Denial. That’s the reaction. Doesn’t matter if the surprise is reasonable, understandable, or well explained. Dr. No’s only reaction is a fighting “No”.

  • “No, I’m not going let her go.”
  • “No, I’m not moving organizations.”
  • “No, we’re not shutting down this group.”

Remember, knee jerk reactions are not rational, they are not considered, and while they are tactically interesting, they are not strategically useful. Dr. No’s denial is not her actual thoughts on that topic, it’s her reptilian brain reaction to a surprise.


If this is a group surprise and Dr. No is sitting in a conference room full of people throwing down the No, there’s a chance for everyone to go off the rails. Well, Dr. No said no and I agree, so NO AS WELL. The time immediately after the surprise goes down is not the time to take any action except to allow folks to react. There are going to be Nos as well as a bevy of other reactions and your job, if it’s your meeting, is to let folks talk — let them react. The goal with Dr. No and everyone else in the room is to get their reaction out so that we can figure out what to do next.

The follow-up: The good news is that Dr. No has got it out of her system. She’s expressed her displeasure, which is half of the game. The next time you chat, there will be residual No, but Dr. No knows that she’s been heard and will be willing to brainstorm what to do next about the surprise.

Raging Bull. Perhaps the most dangerous of the reactions, Raging Bull wants to fight. They’re taking the surprise personally, they’re going to say No, and they’re going to pick a fight. The Raging Bull is Dr. No with attitude.

The move with the Raging Bull is to know that it’s coming, to know that you’ve got a Raging Bull on your hands. If you have any control over the surprise, you want to put the Raging Bull in a safe situation where they can react to their heart’s content without afflicting psychological damage on others or sparking a mob mentality where they infect a mindless horde of mini-Raging Bulls. If it’s a pure surprise and it’s a group setting, my advice is to end the meeting as quickly as possible. Like Dr. No, Raging Bull is expressing his shock. Unlike Dr. No, the Raging Bull isn’t going to feel complete until they’ve got the emotional satisfaction of picking a fight with someone else.

The follow-up: Everyone needs time to contemplate a surprise, but no one needs time more than Raging Bull. Each knee jerk reaction scratches a particular psychological itch and in the case of Raging Bull, they believe that getting someone else to participate in their mental and verbal freak-out is somehow going to help.

It’s not.

Of all the reactions, Raging Bull’s behavior is the one that I’ve found to likely to repeat itself after the fact. Raging Bull will often continue to pick fights days after the initial surprise, which is why it’s your move to get them thinking, as quickly as possible, about what’s next. What are we going to do about the surprise? What specific thought does Raging Bull have which is crucial to successfully navigating this surprise?

Still Water. This reaction reads like flight because they’re not fighting. In fact, they’re just sitting there, but Sill Water is taking it all in. They’re not missing a thing and in their complete silence, wearing their poker face, they are meticulously processing, they’re evaluating all possible permutations, best and worst case scenarios, and potential impact on their day to day.

This processing results in one of two very different Still Waters. There’s the true Still Water who is going to maintain the calm demeanor for the entire duration of the surprise. See, this Still Water’s processing has resulted in a comfortable plan. They believe they know what to do about the surprise and this realization has brought them peace.

The second Still Water is mentally losing their shit. Sure, externally they look calm, but internally their processing has resulted in increasingly loony nightmare scenarios regarding the surprise. Without quick action, Insane Still Water will find reason to become a Raging Bull.

The follow-up: You want to get to Still Water as quickly as possible in a safe location after the surprise because Still Water isn’t still. Unlike Dr. No and the Raging Bull who had their opportunities to weigh in, Still Water is still in their head and the longer they remain in the head, the higher the probability they’ll tell themselves a tale that will drive them insane.

You need Still Water to say out loud how they feel about the world suddenly changing. Like Raging Bull, you need to engage Still Water in the surprise and move the problem out of their heads and onto the table where everyone can take action.

Distiller. This is my favorite knee jerk reaction because the Distiller attacks the surprise with questions. Why did this happen? How come we didn’t see it coming? Ok, what’s the impact? Right, what are we going to do?

This is a fight reaction, but a constructive one. The Distiller is as uncomfortable as anyone with the surprise, but their coping mechanism is aggressive understanding. They’re not going to stop asking questions until they feel they’ve got a complete understanding of what actually happened.

In a group setting, I let the Distiller have free-reign during the landing of the surprise because their incessant questions are helping everyone in the room contemplate what actually happened. They focus the surprise on facts rather than feel.

The follow-up: You’re going to feel you’ve got a good idea where the Distiller is at because of their endless questions, but now’s a good time to explain that everyone comes down from a surprise in different ways, which is why everyone needs that personal follow-up. Yeah, a Distiller can turn into Raging Bull after a night’s sleep. Still Water might go Distiller. You just don’t know who is going to walk into the building 24 hours after the surprise. This is why most surprises are engineered to occur late in the week; there’s a belief that all the knee jerks are going to calm down over the weekend. Maybe. More on this in a bit.

The Handler. The first flight reaction sure doesn’t feel like flight. The Handler is not surprised. In fact, they’re fired up to handle whatever the surprise might be. They make it appear that they knew this surprise was going to occur. How’d they do that?

The Handler is a calm facade. Where the Distiller understands via questions, The Handler’s coping mechanism is the illusion they’ve got it all figured out — that they’re 10 steps ahead of everyone else. This is a convenient reaction when you’ve got the Raging Bull standing on the conference table challenging anyone to hand-to-hand combat, but The Handler needs help.

The follow-up: The Handler crumbles hardest. The Handler is actually Dr. No except without the denial. There will be a quiet moment in the middle of the night when The Handler realizes absolutely nothing has been handled and then you’ll see their actual reaction.

My Bad. This flight reaction is one of accountability. My Bad’s impression is that they’ve personally done something to incur this particular surprise. They believe that if only they had done just one thing different, no one would’ve had to deal with the surprise.

There’s hope inside of My Bad’s reaction. Their empathy regarding the surprise is constructive, as opposed to the destructive social tendencies of Dr. No or Raging Bull, but you don’t want them wallowing in their overdeveloped sense of accountability.

The follow-up: My Bad is not responsible for the surprise. While their sense of responsibility is admirable, My Bad needs to understand the actual cause behind the surprise. They didn’t cause it, so they shouldn’t feel it. They more they focus on feeling responsible, the less energy and focus they have for making progress.

We’re Doomed. The most common flight reaction is also the reaction that, I believe, everyone is going to experience as they digest the surprise. Despair.

In a room full of geeks hearing a surprise for the first time, one of their first thoughts is, “How does this surprise fit into my mental system of how things work?” Failure to map the surprise into the mental model results in an uncomfortable realization: “The world does not work as I expected. Therefore, other surprises are guaranteed to happen randomly. QED. I have no control whatsoever. Shit.”

The follow-up: A perceived lack of control or understanding of our world is a confidence shattering experience for the geek, and the best way to attack this despair is with a project. Doesn’t matter if the project is surprise-related or not, the geek needs something to do. They need the blissful distraction of building something. It’s during this constructive distraction that they’ll actually figure out how they feel about the surprise.

I Quit. The last knee jerk is our strongest flight reaction. An extreme version of We’re Doomed, I Quit does exactly what you’d expect: they threaten to quit on the spot.

They’re not quitting. Well, they might, but not right now. You need to translate “I quit” into what they’re actually saying: “I am very surprised and I don’t like being this surprised.” It’s unfortunate that this is their reaction, especially in a group setting, because I Quit’s attitude can create mass professional hysteria, which means this needs to be handled immediately. You can’t wait until after the weekend to explain to I Quit that their reaction at this moment might be vastly different after a night’s sleep. You need to hold up a mirror in front of them and ask, “No matter the surprise, why in the world would you eliminate so many options by quitting on the spot?”

The follow-up: I Quit will calm down and land on another opinion, but their knee jerk reaction is a sign of a larger problem. I don’t know what your surprise is, but I know if someone wants to quit that, first, it’s a big surprise, and second, they value their job second to their peace of mind.

Stages of Jerk

With people, it’s never as easy as just a name. These labels for the knee jerk reactions are deliberately simple, but people are conspicuously complex.

As I hinted earlier, I’ve found it commonplace that you’re going to see multiple knee jerk reactions as a corporate surprise is comprehended. These reactions, like grief, have stages, and your job as a manager or a concerned co-worker is actually not comparably complex. Your job is to listen.

The reason there’s a knee jerk reaction is because the unexpected occurred. It kicks off the process of assimilation and that’s what we care about — the understanding of the surprise, not the reaction to it. While everyone has a different reaction, they’re all going to end up trying to figure out what just happened, and part of that process is having someone they trust sit there and listen to their assessment. Verbally walking through our thoughts is one of the ways we organize and understand them and begin the process of finding a comfortable constructive conclusion.

I’m just as uncomfortable with a Raging Bull as anyone, but I know this knee jerk reaction is not who they are, this is just how they react. Understanding these varied potential reactions is just the first part of digesting a surprise – it helps you understand what to expect so you can begin to figure out what to do next.

Leave a Reply to Alex Beamish Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

13 Responses

  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you. In the course of reading this article I figured out why I react to change the way I do. After the fact, I never really care about the change, and adapt pretty easily to it. But when it’s first brought up, I am Dr. No to a ‘t’! Thanks for teaching me something new today!

  2. These insightful ‘categorizing’ posts are, in my opinion, THE reason to read this blog.

    I myself am probably a Handler. I’ve noticed that in many situations, stepping up and handling the crisis (or beginning to handle it) helps relieve the sense of panic, even if the Handler doesn’t actually know or understand more than anyone else in the crisis.

  3. I definitely value my job second to my peace of mind. In one EXTREME surprise situation, I actually said “Do you want me to quit? Is that what you want?” (Oddly enough that’s what they did want. And they didn’t get it.)

    I Quit can also be a fight reaction, depending how it’s played. But I do know the feeling well. Gotta run. Gotta hide.

    (Usually, I go for a very long walk outside at that point)

  4. Wow. This is very nice. The company I’m working for is in the process of being acquired and I was just in a surprise company meeting where the acquisition announcement was made. Shock, surprise!

    I found myself in very still waters.

    Thank you for reminding me that others reacted as well.

  5. Sean Callahan 14 years ago

    After reading this, I’ve decided I’m a “Still Water Quitter”. I don’t say anything, but once surprises happen (that I don’t agree with), I start looking for a new job. It may take 3-6 months, but it will happen.

    So far it’s worked out positively – the first time I ended up in Antartica for five months, the second time resulted in twelve months in New Zealand and the last time I ended up moving to the Gold Coast in Australia.

    Maybe I should look for more surprises at work (though my family might disagree!).

    Good article.

  6. Well, I guess I’m a My Bad. After dealing with some of the other types, I’ve realized that in many cases, I can apply the My Bad reaction to diffuse anger and rage in others.

    “I can’t believe it! How is this bug possible?!”

    “Sorry, My Bad, I never thought we should test for this specific scenario.”

    Now, instead of anger, their trying to convince me it could’ve happened to anyone. They are diffusing my My Bad knee jerk. Now they are no longer in fight-mode, and we can start dealing with the problem.

    And that’s great, because in my head I’m going insane, and I need someone else to take the reigns.

  7. John Christensen 14 years ago

    Good article. I read it and definitely found myself trying to both figure out what kind of jerk I am, and what kind of jerk I’d like to be.

    What’s interesting is that I’m not sure people are the same jerk to all surprises. I definitely think I react differently to certain surprises than others, dependent on a variety of factors (current stress level, and the nature of the surprise).

    For example – being told three days before we’re due to ship that we need a new feature has a much higher tendency to elicit a Dr. No reaction than news of corporate re-orgs.

    The primary thing I’ve learned is that whatever the reaction – take note of it, then take a few deep breaths, and only *then* ask yourself if that reaction was correct for the situation.

  8. Great Article. I have and can be any of these types, it depends on the type of “surprise”.

    The trick is to see the surprise coming. Andy Grove wrote a great book, “Only the Paranoid Survive”. In this he talks about seeing the signs of change and being able to predict the surprises. Based on what you sense is coming can dictate what type of jerk you need to be.


  9. A lot of good in the article, but…

    Reactions can be changed. That’s the entire basis of martial-arts training. And it’s part of the beauty and strength of humans as a species that we have the self-awareness to recognize that a reaction may not be appropriate and that we can change it (if we choose).

    Moths are drawn to a flame, even if it’ll kill them. They’re stuck with natural selection to improve.

    Humans, when our first reaction proves harmful, can learn from the experience and better ourselves. Call me a species-ist, but I think that makes us better than them.

  10. Alex Beamish 14 years ago

    Interesting. I would say my reaction is Still Water, which means I’m thinking, or processing as we seem to say nowadays.

    I don’t usually have a quick answer — not that bright — but after having thought about it, I am able to ask some really good questions, sometimes pointing out a great, simple solution, or be able to successfully argue that the client’s asking for something that’s either impossible, really hard to do, or not something they actually want at all.

    But I also see My Bad in myself as well — if I’ve made a mistake, I’m happy to own up to it as quickly as possible, but also try to figure out how to mitigate the damage.

    Thought-provoking as always. Thanks.

  11. Kapil 14 years ago

    Surprisingly nice article.

    My first reaction was The Handler. Don’t I know all these reactions?

    Then it was Still Water. Let me at least try to listen to all that is written.

    Then I eventually used it to gather my emotions after a bad and make it good.


  12. Can I just say that I’m glad you spell “judgement” with two e’s? I feel like we’re a dying breed. Sigh.

  13. Good article. Decided that I’m a Still Water before turning into a Distiller. After I’ve had my time to process what’s happened – during which time I pretty much shut down and go all poker face like I’m gambling with a couple million – I start asking questions. The first reaction can be infuriating for others though and I need to be more Distiller, or at least get to it quicker. Asking me to get my thoughts out into the open doesn’t help because my response is usually “I’ll get back to you”.

    Trying to work out which one is the Babbler. He’s kinda like the Handler and a bit like the Distiller, but the Babbler is the guy who just starts talking to make it look like he’s trying to work out what happened when internally he’s going quietly and messily insane. He probably ends up in the We’re Doomed category though.

    Agree with comments above too: we can learn new behaviours, it’s just a matter of wanting to make the change.

    Great blog btw 🙂