Crisis. Panic. Urgency. These are some of the words with negative connotations that describe many organizations. We are in constant rush, trying to squeeze as much as possible from every minute. We spend increasing amount of time online, we multitask like crazy, can’t focus on anything in particular, and we are constantly reacting to the environment around us. We are reacting, instead of acting.
Definition of proactivity
It is one of the most frequent words in management. You hear it in your performance reviews, and you are probably using it yourself when giving feedback and trying to develop other people, “you need to be more proactive.” Proactivity or proactive behavior usually refers to self-initiated behavior that is anticipatory and often change oriented. It means that you are able to anticipate future needs and start acting on them already today, as opposed to waiting and reacting on them when they actually occur. It is about being in the control of the situation, rather than being controlled by it.
It makes sense. If you are able to prevent something bad from happening, it is of course preferable from waiting and then doing damage control after the fact. It is not only about preventing something harmful. The most common situations where proactivity pays of are in communication. Being able to defuse potentially heated conversation before it has a chance to escalate is the one most useful skill in working with people.
Choosing how to act
One of the great things evolution granted to human beings is our ability to imagine. We can create an entire world in our minds. We can imagine potential futures and prepare for it. We can even imagine several different outcomes, anticipate most likely outcomes and act pre-emptively to ensure the most favorable results.
However, this only works when we want to, when we care. It means that we are able to focus on a particular problem and think it through before plunging heedlessly into an action. At the other hand, we also need to be aware that even no action has consequences. Whether we chose to act or not, we should do it with full understanding that there will be consequences in either case.
“Proactivity is not only about anticipating the future and acting to shape it, it is also about us being able to choose our responses to external stimuli.“
Choosing how to respond
Proactivity means also something else. It is not only about how we act, but also how we chose to react and feel about an external stimuli. If you are a proactive person you will never get angry with, or depressed about something that happened and that was out of your control. You know that there are some things in this universe that you can’t influence and you made your peace with that fact.
Instead of brooding about the fact that life is not fair, you accept it and learn to live with it. It doesn’t bother you. When something bad happens, you are able to shrug it off and focus your attention on other things. You focus on what you can influence and what is under your control. You don’t react, but rather you chose how to respond. You also chose to feel good about the world around you even if it doesn’t comply with your wishes.
If you are a proactive person, you are not slave to environment but you live by your values. Environment is changing and can influence your moods and abilities like weather, but constant values provide immunity to changing environment and keep you sane and happy.
Rules to follow
To practice proactive leadership you should live by couple of basic rules:
- Live by values – understand what your core values are and live by them. They will be an anchor in difficult times, and a compass that will lead you around the troubles. You can’t be an effective leader without solid value system, understanding natural laws and having trustful relationships.
- See the big picture – never jump into conclusions or give in to biases before you understand the complete picture. Only because something appears in a certain way on the first look, it doesn’t mean that it is the truth. We see the world not as it is, but as we are and as we want it to be.
- Know your people – and by people I mean any stakeholders who are involved in a given situation or decision at hand. Only by understanding who the various parties are and what are their objectives you can judge the situation objectively and come up with the best possible solution.
- Anticipate problems – always consider consequences of your actions, inactions, words, and silence. You should be like a chess player who is looking couple of moves ahead to anticipate potential outcomes and planning the best strategy forward. But don’t over-analyze. Think two steps ahead, not hundred, otherwise you will never be able to move at all.
- Be transparent – be clear with the people around you on your objectives, your opinions, your values, and your likely actions. It will help others to anticipate your needs and reactions, and it will influence the way they act. By being transparent, you are increasing your sphere of influence and you are shaping the environment to your needs.
- Communicate effectively – it is about making sure your message is heard. It is not about being the loudest, the most chatty, or the fastest. In communication you shouldn’t try to be efficient, but rather to be effective. It may be easy to just send out an email to ten people and hope they will read it, only to be later on surprised and irritated that half of them didn’t get it and the other half understood it wrong. It would be less efficient, but more effective to talk to them over the phone and be sure they got the message and understood it the way you intended.
- Follow up – to make sure that whatever you planned actually happened. It is easy to set things in motion and hope for the best but without following up on the events you give up the opportunity to course correct and deal with unexpected situations. Following up is also important for getting to a closure, for celebrating wins, and learning for loses.
The one thing you should take away is that proactivity is not about being fast and always keep moving. It is not about urgency. It is about a mindset that keeps you firmly grounded in difficult times. It is about having strong values. It is about having ability to anticipate the future. Ultimately, it is about choosing how to respond to the world on your own terms.
What is your definition of proactive leadership? How do you cope with stress and craziness of management in today’s corporations?
Originally posted on LinkedIn.