Proactive vs. Reactive

Posted by jlubans on April 17, 2013

One hears from time to time that a proactive workforce is preferable to a reactive one. The implication is that the proactive seek challenges and reactives wait for challenge to plop on their front porch, like newspapers once did. The former is thought to be the more desirable of the two.

Proactive even sounds better, does it not? But what does it mean to be proactive? The word is a relative newcomer, as words go, dating back a mere 70 years to 1933, according to the dictionary. Reactive has been with us much longer. It first raised its tentative head in 1794. Of course, etymology does not help much in explaining why we have more reactive organizations than we do proactive. Perhaps social psychology would offer a better explanation. Maybe we are using the wrong term; what passes for reactive might be more congruent with inactive!

One of my main rationales for a democratic workplace is that it empowers staff to be proactive. When staff are proactive good things happen for the individual worker and for the organization. Yet, as I puzzle over it, it seems we have a dearth of proactive workplaces or of democratic workplaces. They exist in small numbers and are often much admired, but rarely emulated.

Does it matter? Here is what I regard as the positive behaviors of a proactive staffer:

Is open to ideas; knows a good idea when it pops up or when he or she runs into it. Ideas come to the proactive worker because he likes what he does and thinks about doing it better.

Acts like a business owner; thinks about the business and ways to make things better. If there’s a bit of trash on the sidewalk in front of the business, the proactive worker picks it up – it’s not her job, but she wants the workplace to look its best.

Takes pride (no, not the kind that goes before the fall) in what she does. Derives pleasure from a job well done.

A proactive person listens and hears; asks questions and listens to answers.

Seeks improvement each day, to how he or she does her job. Is willing to give change a chance. If it does not work out, then learns from the failure and does better the next time.

Understands, indeed knows, the business and what it is about. Can draw the organization’s big picture and believes it matters.

Brings others along; seeks group support for ideas and relies on groups to come up with better solutions than those developed solo.

Wants to know what others are doing – a basic reason to belong to a professional association.

Wants to be relevant, to improve the organization in its bottom line and the numbers of people well served.

Relies on instinct when things go awryt; takes action to remedy. When stymied, develops “work arounds” – alternative solutions - rather than long explanations (rules) about why something cannot be done.

Not every boss or organization wants – regardless of advertising – proactive workers. Too many proactive workers would lead to organizational chaos many bosses claim. Rules are, well, rules and they exist for ruly reasons. What happens when staff do what needs doing in spite of rules? Does the world end?

Leading from the Middle is largely about being proactive and creating an organizational climate that encourages the proactive worker.

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Posted by russ on April 18, 2013  •  06:59:35

Just remember, when you're up to your arse in alligators, the mission was to drain the swamp!

Posted by jlubans on April 19, 2013  •  14:07:40

Hey Russ, I think Pogo would have added something sage!

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