3 types of reactive mindsets [+ infographic]

3 types of reactive mindsets [+ infographic]

We all have moments when we're not at our best. In times of stress and anxiety, we find different ways of coping; our stress manifests itself in different ways. This can have devastating effects on leaders who are unaware of their own coping mechanisms and reactive style.


As opposed to creative leaders, who are able to lead with clarity of vision and purpose amidst complexity and ambiguity, reactive leaders are less aware and swayed by external factors. There are three types of reactive mindsets – Complying, Controlling, and Protecting – that often emerge in these high-tension or ambiguous situations. We develop these mindsets at an early age to cope with difficult situations. As a result, we build "mental structures" that offer different ways to interpret and interact with the world around us.


Based on German psychoanalyst Karen Horney's theory of neurosis in her book, Our Inner Conflicts, leadership experts Bob Anderson and Bill Adams adapted these mindsets into leadership development.

Work your way through your limitations

Any leader can identify with more than one of the reactive mindsets. Even an “evolved” leader can regress; it’s all about self-awareness.

Download the reactive mindsets infographic here:


In order to overcome your reactive tendencies, you must uncover your underlying needs. What is the hole you are trying to fill? Think about this in terms of emotions, not thoughts. It is generally accepted that there are four basic emotions: happiness, sadness, fear, and anger. If you were to examine your core need and behavior, which emotion are you feeling? Let’s say Rachel was having an argument with one of her employees and decided to give in even though she knew she was right. In this situation, Rachel’s basic need was for her employee not to be angry or upset with her. In this situation, she was experiencing a fear of rejection.

Let’s take the first step in overcoming your reactive tendencies. Think about a recent episode where you found yourself in one of the reactive mindsets (pick one). Ask yourself:

  • What are the natural gifts and talents of this mindset?
  • What are its liabilities and limitations?

Imagine you would more constructively leverage the gifts and talents that come with this behavior, without getting in your own way through the liabilities and limitations. Turn this into a statement:

  • I would like to [gift or talent] without [liability or limitation].
  • e.g. A Complying leader might say: I would like to be loyal without ignoring my own needs.

What is at risk if you did this?
How does that feel?
What does that tell you?
How can you deal with that?

To learn how to overcome your reactive mindsets, join the THNK Executive Leadership Program.