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Are you a shock absorber or a shock amplifier?

Two very different reactions to the same situation

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Talking to one of my bosses a few years ago, he said “I won’t hire that candidate I just interviewed – he is a shock amplifier and not a shock absorber.” Huh? What does that mean?

My boss interviewed hundreds of people over the years for roles ranging from the front line to C-Suite. He used all of the proven methods for evaluating candidates – screening resumes, verifying experience, asking behavioral questions, and checking for cultural fit.

But he added one other key criteria to his list. He evaluated the candidates to determine how they would react in stressful situations.

What is the difference between a shock absorber and a shock amplifier?

Coining the terms ‘shock absorber’ and ‘shock amplifier’, he used this distinction to anticipate whether a candidate would be an asset in a crisis or a detriment.

Shock absorbers react calmly to surprises, changes and crises. They absorb problems and spread calm to others.

Shock amplifiers responds to similar situations with panic or distress. They react emotionally and set off a tidal wave of contagious panic that spreads to others. 

What does the psychological research say?

You won’t find any research on the specific concept of shock absorber versus shock amplifier. But the core concept seems to measure the same personality trait as emotional stability.

Emotional stability is one of the Big 5 personality factors supported by research. To learn the definition of the Big 5 personality factors, read the article “Measuring personality with the Big 5“. For an exploration of related research, check out “Is it me or the job? Measuring personality at work“.

People with high emotional stability manage their emotions and reactions well. People with lower emotional stability (sometimes described as being higher in neuroticism) tend to be sensitive and react emotionally. They get easily frustrated in stressful situations and hold on to negative feelings longer.

Shock absorbers have high emotional stability. They absorb tough news, negative emotions and criticism and neutralize them. Their calmness helps them stay focused and keep others calm.

Shock amplifiers have lower emotional stability. They react to tough news and conflict by getting emotional and escalating the situation. Their negativity is contagious and spreads to people around them.

Why does it matter at work?

The shock absorber/ amplifier concept is important at work. It takes the personality trait of emotional stability and extends it to behaviors and impact.

Absorbers and amplifiers spread their reactions to other people. These shared feelings influence the team’s short-term ability to problem solve and the long-term company culture.

Shock absorbers and shock amplifiers exist at all levels of an organization – from the most junior roles to the most senior roles.

For leaders of people, however, the impact of their reactions is magnified. Their position power as the boss amplifies the reaction – for better or for worse.

Corporate example of a shock amplifier and a shock absorber

Consider these two leaders and their reactions to the same situation.

Situation: The CEO calls all of her direct reports into a meeting and announces that the company revenue is down for the year. To make the numbers promised to Wall Street, the company needs to cut expenses for the remainder of the fiscal year. Each function leader must cut 10% of expenses by shifting project priorities.

Example 1: The shock amplifier

Function leader #1 freaks out. Arguing that the cuts are not fair, he yells at the leader of the sales team for his incompetence and for getting them into this mess.

After the meeting, he pulls several peers aside in the hallway to complain about the decision. Still agitated, he returns to his office and calls in his team. With an angry voice, he tells his team about the decision and how it will derail everything they have been working on. The team leaves in a panic to tell their teams to stop working, because everything is on hold. Rumors of layoffs start flying.

Function leader #1 is a shock amplifier who infected his team and made a tough situation worse.

Example 2: The shock absorber

Function Leader #2 is surprised and concerned by the announcement. But she listens to the explanation and the expectations.

Accepting that the decision is made, she starts considering her options. She returns to her office and plans out some approaches to cutting her budget.

Bringing in her team, she calmly explains the need and collects their input. Together they work out which projects can be stopped or pushed back to the next fiscal year. They quickly meet their 10% reduction goal. Her team leaves and starts explaining the changes to their teams.

Function leader #2 is a shock absorber who stayed calm and was able to make plans while keeping her team calm and focused.

Questions to consider

The good news is that you can control your tendency to be an absorber or an amplifier. First you need to gauge which one you are. Second, you can learn behaviors to control your reactions.

Consider these questions:

Does your company have more shock absorbers or shock amplifiers?

Which are you?

Which do you want to be?

How do you need to change your reactions to meet your goal?

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