Proactivity - Being Pro-active

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Personal Impact

Being Proactive

We hear the term 'proactivity' or the phrase 'we need our people to be more pro-active' a lot these days.

But what the hell does it actually mean?

"Sounds to me, suspiciously like 'they' want us to do more."

You're right there. Of course what you might mean by 'more' and what 'they' might mean by 'more' is very much open to interpretation.

In our experience, what most people mean by 'proactivity' is they want their people to see what's needed and then figure out a way to make it happen. Hmmm. Nice idea. So why doesn't it happen more often?

See, a few things go on in most companies.

1. People don't see anything except what's in front of them.

2. People might see what else is going on but don't think it's their job and that it's someone else's responsibility to make it happen.

3. People do see what's going on but are afraid if they do anything about it then it will be expected of them to continue taking responsibility for it forever more.

4. People see what's going on, grudgingly do something about it and then become a kind of martyr about it all (deep sighs and/or sulks are common here).

5. People see what's going on and if something is needed, even if it isn't in their job description, collaborate with those around them to get it done.

So in the best of all possible worlds, proactivity is the latter and everything else is just commonplace (unfortunately).

The challenge is how to get people to see that the fifth way of behaving enhances them, their colleagues and their organisation without them feeling put upon, a mug, taken advantage of, a goodie-goodie and every other pejorative you can think of.

When people have clearly defined roles, it is, quite rightly, their aim to fulfil those roles as best they can. It's easy for them to miss seeing anything else other than their own tasks, goals and priorities. Even if they do see other stuff, it's easy to justify not doing anything about it because they are focused on what they have to do.

However, there is something immensely powerful within an organisation where everyone is proactive. This means that no one person takes on martyrdom in getting extra stuff done; it means that everyone shares responsibility and discusses who might do what at any given time. "It's not my job, man," doesn't even enter into it!

Sounds great, doesn't it?

So now we're back to: how do you make that happen? How do you create an environment where everyone does think it's their responsibility to contribute to the whole and not just do their bit of it? How do you engage people so they don't feel overstretched and overburdened?


Valuing What They Do

Of course, valuing how people already contribute to the organisation is a great place to start. Saying thank you simply isn't enough. People have to be seen, acknowledged (even if it makes them feel uncomfortable) and rewarded for the jobs they already do.

Rewards can be money, obviously. But equally obviously for many organisations at this time, money may be tight and monetary rewards may just not be on the cards. Letting people know that as soon as things improve, they will be remunerated is really important.

So how else reward people other than money?


Embarrassment's good. Embarrass people by praising them specifically for things they have done. Not just a general "You do a great job" but itemise what you've seen them do so that you show them you've actually noticed their work and the difference it makes. Praise them in front of their colleagues - that will really embarrass them. Or better yet, have an Acknowledgement Circle where everyone gets recognition for their accomplishments....specific accomplishments.

They don't have to be big, earth shattering or even above and beyond: getting praised for the everyday stuff is important too.


Another way of rewarding people is to have some kind of company or department 'do' other than Christmas. Even in financially difficult times a few hundred quid can be scraped together for some kind of mini-event: a picnic or barbeque, a round of drinks after work, salsa dancing, bowling - it doesn't really matter - anything will do!


Asking people for their opinions and input and really listening is a way to reward others. Some companies have suggestion boxes but we've often been told that their suggestions are simply ignored. Now, not every idea can be put into practise but there's no reason why you can't publish or announce in some way all the ideas that have been presented and which ones will be acted on and which ones won't and why.

People feel really chuffed if something they've thought of gets put into play and even if not, being acknowledged for having an idea in the first place gives people a sense of pride and encouragement to keep on seeing what else might help the company.

You may not be able to act on things the way Sainsbury's did in the Channel 4 series 'I'm Running Sainsbury's' but even enacting small ideas can make a big impact in an organisation, and even more so, make a big impact on how someone feels.

Your Behaviour

Lead by Example.

Ah ha! No point in asking others to behave in certain ways if you aren't doing it too.

There's nothing more demotivating than the message that says "do as I say, not as I do" (well, maybe there are one or two other things that could be more demotivating!). You have to be proactive, you have to notice how people contribute and let them know you notice; you have to keep up a degree of energy, enthusiasm and positivity if you want others to display the same.

You don't have to be a Pollyanna, but you do have to recognise that carrots, not sticks are what motivate most people.

Let Others Know Your Expectations

Don't expect mind-reading. You may know what you'd like done but if you don't articulate it every once in a while, it's not really fair to assume others will a) remember; b) notice things the way you do; c) feel motivated; d) see it as part of their job.

Sometimes it's easy to fall into a kind of whiney "How can they not see?" frame of mind, but that isn't going to do you or them any good whatsoever. For whatever reason, some people need the occasional reminder and a reiteration of what else they could do.

Avoid Finger Pointing

Why should anyone do 'more' if there is a blame culture within the organisation? In these situations, most sane people will simply keep their heads down and play safe. Who wants to get criticised or get a dressing down if they try something out that doesn't work?

Because when it comes to proactivity, sometimes that will happen: mistakes will be made, something will get screwed up; something crucial may get overlooked.

If people know that no one is going to come down hard on them if things go wrong, they will be far more likely to give something a try; otherwise they risk humiliation and no one likes the prospect of being humiliated.

This doesn't mean you ignore mistakes, but as the clich says, they are opportunities to review, not ways of making someone feel bad.

"That's a good idea."

Just a few words can make a great big difference. Even if you think it's a crap idea, get used to saying it. "That's a good idea."

Then you can unpick it, get people to explain how it would work, listen to the pros and cons.

OK, if you can't bring yourself to say "That's a good idea" how's about "That's an interesting idea" instead? Then you can do the same unpicking, explaining, listening without the idea-giver ever getting the sense that you think/know it won't work.

Besides - you never know - it just might.

What About the Team?

You know, 'the whole is greater than the sum of its parts' thing? It's true.

So how well does your team work together? If you want your people to be proactive, everyone has to work collaboratively or else the gaps will begin to show up pretty quickly.

Do you have regular team meetings? Does everyone contribute or is everyone talked to and told what's happening? Are tasks agreed among everyone and who's going to be helping whom?

Even though these meetings may be more about the every day stuff and not the extras you'd like, it will create a climate where people know what each other is doing and how they might be involved.

As part of team meetings we recommend as much transparency as possible. By transparency we mean that team members are kept informed about what's going on in the whole company: they are kept abreast of the company's financial situation, what's going on in other departments, how they fit into the whole, what difficulties or concerns might lie ahead and indeed, how being proactive can literally change the face of the company.

Ask them what they want. Ask them what their aspirations are. Ask them what support they need. Ask them what their expectations are of you.

One of the principal aims of any team meeting is that it's two-way, with conversations, not statements.

What about weak links? In an ideal world every link is a strong as the next. Most of us don't live in an ideal world - we live in the real one. This means that sometimes, not everyone works to the level you would like and this could be caused by a skills gap, illness, not fitting in, personal problems, distractions, disinterest, boredom, feeling overwhelmed or quite simply, not being up to the job.

It's your job to uncover what's behind the weak link's weakness. Until you do that, you and the rest of your team may feel frustrated and impatient without understanding what's really going on.

A team, after all, is only as strong as its weakest link in the long term and it is up to you to bring the team together in a way where people fill in the gaps when needed, lend support when needed and hold the team in more importance than themselves. Not the easiest thing to achieve, we will admit.

Therefore, defining a common purpose - what every team member is out to achieve - is something you do with the whole team, where everyone contributes, everyone's thoughts, ideas and opinions are valued and an agreed vision is decided.

Making it Happen

As you can see, proactivity is far more involved than people noticing or even anticipating what needs to be done and then doing something about it. You can't just ask someone to be proactive and expect that will happen more than once.

A strong foundation has to built, upon which team members feel included, valued, appreciated and rewarded for all their efforts.

Part of this foundation is your own vigilance in having and articulating your expectations and aspirations for your company and/or department.

Finally, the biggest piece of the proactivity puzzle is to revisit your organisation's ethos, values and vision on a regular basis so that your team understands the importance of what they do - even the little stuff.


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