Misleading Myths and Useful Advice about Being Proactive

Thomas Bateman
Leaders & Managers
Published in
4 min readNov 22, 2021

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What is the deep meaning of “We should’ve been more proactive”? By changing how we think and behave, we influence our futures. Studies show benefits ranging from stronger job performance to career success to addressing the harmful consequences of climate change.

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However, proactive is buzzwordy, easy to underestimate and to consider a mere cliché. Here are some common myths and higher-impact meanings:

A myth: Being proactive boosts productivity by getting busy instead of procrastinating, thus completing assignments by their deadlines.

This is the familiar meaning of being proactive. Searching Google for proactive images reveals people working hard to achieve ambitious goals, like the mountain biker riding up a ridge with a 45-degree incline. One cartoon shows a figure concentrating on work while the other leans back with feet on a desk; another shows people walking while one leaps ahead in a deer-like stride. The clear themes are “taking action” and “being out front.”

However, proactivity really is much more: thinking about the directions you — or your team, employer, or others — are heading, strategically exploring new possibilities, and changing strategies or paths toward a more desired future.

Most studies of proactivity in the workplace focus on actions that make significant positive impacts. It’s also proactive to resist and slow or prevent destructive change, like voicing your concerns and arguing for a better direction when a boss, company, industry, or government heads down a wrong path.

A myth: Some people are proactive, and some are not.

George Bernard Shaw identified three kinds of people: those who make things happen; those who watch what happens; and those who wonder what happened. An interesting comment, but it’s most helpful to think of “proactive” less as a kind of person (a trait) and more as a special class of behaviors.

You might have thoughts about how proactive you are. But your tendencies don’t need to dictate your behavior. If you want to be more proactive, you can do so by trying new actions and persisting in your efforts. Recognizing such “free traits” — tendencies like introversion or extraversion and low or high proactivity that you can override when you want to — offer countless new options.

Proaction is a path you choose, not something others dictate. This is not to suggest doing whatever you want, anywhere and anytime. The vital point is that we usually have options we don’t consider, let alone pursue. For example, if rushing an assignment close to deadline, maybe you could choose quality over efficiency and request a short extension, explaining your reasons and then providing superior, memorable work.

A myth: Being proactive is risky, as likely to have bad outcomes as good.

People sometimes recall when they tried to be proactive about something, and their boss disapproved, or worse. Often, they never try again.

One of Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoons shows a school of fish fighting their way upstream. On some nearby stairs, also heading uphill, is a shady character dressed in a long raincoat with the collar turned up and a fedora pulled down. Poking out of the bottom of the raincoat is a fishtail. This lone fish is trying to avoid detection, criticism, and ridicule. Its efforts to find more efficient and effective methods are uniquely proactive, but its colleagues might prematurely reject an innovation with the potential to save their species.

Risks exist and failures happen. But overall, data show employees’ proactivity contributing to higher job performance in the form of sales, supervisor ratings, customer service, creativity, and team performance; career successes (promotions, bonuses, pay raises); psychological well-being (job, life, and career satisfaction, lower stress, and less burnout); and self-chosen leadership roles (taking charge, entrepreneurialism, speaking up about important issues, and others perceiving one’s charisma).

When taking care of COVID-19 patients, the most proactive doctors and nurses effectively applied their strengths, resulting in stronger resilience, thriving, and high job performance. The research shows clear benefits of behaving proactively — not immediately or in every episode, but ultimately generating better futures for oneself and others.

A myth: Not being proactive is a personal failure of self-control.

Creating positive change or actively resisting and preventing harmful change is more challenging and time-consuming than not — and therefore rare.

Even the first step — choosing to pursue a proactive goal — is unusual. One study uncovered more than 2,000 self-identified goals of company presidents and CEOs. Very few of those goals involved instigating notable change. Most of these top executives, most of the time, were pursuing business as usual.

If one study isn’t convincing, consider how often people ignore problems, don’t help others who could use some, and let good opportunities pass by.

A person’s disinclination to be proactive could stem from reasons including disinterest, lack of time, and previous frustrations or collective failures of teams, organizations, societies, or governments. Influential entities and leaders fail others when they ignore the long-term consequences of their actions, neglect or exacerbate problems, and miss high-potential opportunities.

Proactivity might not be a personal failure but placing it front-of-mind can capitalize on its vast potential.

A myth: Being proactive is always beneficial.

Poor choices can make even the timeliest and most energetic actions destructive. People can be proactive in counterproductive, unethical, and illegal ways that harm others and sabotage themselves. Proactivity, like other superpowers, may be used for good or ill.

Climate change is just one of today’s many vital domains marked by far too little proactivity. Opportunities exist everywhere for strategic proaction that avoids worse futures and steers toward better ones. Revisiting GB Shaw, “We are made wise not by the recollection of our past, but by the responsibility for our future.”

This piece appeared originally at PsychologyToday.com

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Thomas Bateman
Leaders & Managers

Tom Bateman lives in Maine and Chicago and is professor emeritus, McIntire School of Commerce, University of Virginia.