Pro-activity: Change the Way You Navigate the World

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Pro-activity is a term people often use in business about taking the initiative to solve problems before they happen. And that leads to being flexible and seeing other perspectives and ways to approach things. In these difficult times, pro-activity is another of the vital soft skills which will benefit you at work and outside.

In this article, we’ll explore what pro-activity means. And we’ll go into how you can use it to help you and your team approach and tackle challenges positively. Being pro-active can transform how you see yourself and the world. Wherever you’re at in your career, whatever your temperament. And you can start the journey by reading this article.

So, What Actually IS Pro-activity?

People use the word pro-activity in different ways. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines Pro-activity in the same sense as our opening: anticipating and solving future problems, needs or challenges. Acting in advance, rather than reacting. And it quotes Michael Tannenbaum as saying pro-active managers are planners. They foresee crises, rather than reel from them.

And in case you were wondering, ‘pro-activity’ and ‘pro-activeness’ mean the same thing. It’s all about dealing with things before the time comes when they need to be taken care of urgently.

The second use of pro-activity is more philosophical. Being pro-active is habit number #1 in Stephen R. Covey’s international bestseller, the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey writes about the psychology and philosophy underpinning pro-activity, and the importance of values. Ultimately pro-activity is not letting adversity defeat us. We can’t control what happens, as Covey points out. But we can control how we react to it.

In Covey’s ‘7 Habits,’ being pro-active means taking personal responsibility for your life. No one else can get your mojo back for you. As Oasis sang, you’ve got to make it happen. And as Covey writes it, pro-active people recognise that they are “response-able.” They don’t blame their circumstances, conditions or past conditioning. They know they can choose their behaviour. In short, yes they are being solution minded, but Covey’s vision goes much deeper.

Why Didn’t I Think Of This Before?

We’ll come back to Mr Covey’s book later. First, let’s look at what it means to be pro-active, in practical terms.

Spot the Pro-active Employee

Some people are naturally pro-active. Here’s how to recognise them:

  • Self-motivated.
  • Innovative problem solvers.
  • Seek out opportunities.
  • Show initiative.
  • Have a long term perspective.
  • Resilient: don’t give up.
  • Goal oriented.
  • They have a growth mindset.

Having a growth mindset means you’re focused on developing your skills. As people sometimes put it, this means becoming the best possible version of you. We’ll talk more about growth mindsets later.

Some are Born Pro-active. But YOU Can Develop Pro-activity.

A group of empowered employees standing in a line

Here’s the thing. Pro-activity is a personality trait some individuals show naturally. But it’s also a soft skill you can work on and acquire.

When people feel trusted and supported, they show increased pro-activity, and also engagement and productivity. And it starts with leaders and managers being pro-active. Here’s how to do it:

Five Ways to Make Your Team More Pro-Active

  1. Create a culture of trust and empowerment: Be open with your people and give them responsibility. Don’t micromanage them!
  2. Involve them in solving problems: Reward them for coming up with the best solutions.
  3. Implement a ‘solutions only here’ policy: Encourage the team to come to you. Not just with problems but suggested solutions.
  4. Encourage flexible working: Get people thinking pro-actively about how they can do their best work.
  5. Reward proactive healthy behaviours: Encourage people to ‘self-care.’ That could mean cycling to work, taking walks at lunchtime, having mindfulness breaks, or working on their mental wellbeing. Or anything else to make them healthier.

Proactivity and Self-care

As the boss, you have a duty of care to your team. But take that duty further, and you’ll definitely get a return on investment. If you help them care for themselves, they’ll work better for you, and build a strong business. We’ll talk more about care, because it’s really important.

Here’s another way to help your people look after themselves at work. This involves managing their performances. You can make them more pro-active in this area, by encouraging them to set themselves SMART goals. ‘SMART’ is an acronym, standing for:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Relevant
  • Time-based

Why ‘SMART’ Goals are Good

If you introduce your team to ‘SMART’ goals, you aren’t being the big bad boss! They give your team members well-defined aims, timeframes and benchmarks for success.

Be pro-active about encouraging them to see their goals positively. Not as things to get stressed about achieving, or not. And help them to see their work as a way to achieve self-actualisation, the top level in Maslow’s hierarchy. Encouraging pro-activity like this is an area where you can use your coaching leadership skills.

Goal plan action written on a yellow sticky note

Now THAT’S What I Call A Pro-active Approach!

Going back to Merriam-Webster’s definition, a pro-active approach is any action you initiate that prepares you to handle the future. Pro-activity contrasts with reactive approaches that wait for the future to happen before taking action. Try building these pro-active approaches into your working life:

Anticipate Objections

Think through how people are likely to react to your ideas and plan your response. If you need the other person to take action, be ready with the specifics.

Be Persistent

A pro-active approach implies you have an energetic and persistent set of actions in mind. People will respect you, and respond.

Communicate Better

Check in with the people you’re working with, early and often. This way you will avoid problems and get, and be able to give, feedback sooner.

Control the Quality

Check completed work and finished goods for problems before they go to the customer, client or whoever. And if problems do arise, be pro-active and sort them quickly. Taking this approach means you stay in charge of the situation. And it builds the relationship. Win-win.

Develop Resilience

Going back to healthy behaviours, adopt self-care strategies to make you stronger and able to perform better. Exercising, eating healthily, sleeping properly, and looking after your mental health. They all help you focus and be more pro-active.

Learn the Lessons

Review and evaluate. Always be ready to absorb and improve. Remember what happened for next time, and how you dealt with it. It’s okay to get things wrong, as long as you learn.

Manage Expectations

Set out clearly what you will and won’t do. This way you will avoid future upsets and build relationships and trust.

Manage Risks

Risk Return written on small wooden cubes

Identify potential causes of future failure and take steps to avoid, transfer or reduce the risk. Give the people responsible clear feedback about what you want them to improve on. And if that approach doesn’t work, avoid suppliers and business partners who consistently let you down. If the person letting you down is your client, don’t give up! Be persistent, and see if communicating better helps.

Plan, plan, plan

Team charters and team plans are sound examples of pro-activity in action. And making joint business plans with external partners is definitely being pro-active, especially in the current uncertain climate.


Rehearsing presentations and speeches before the event is pro-active.

Resolve Problems

Identify the root cause of the problem, as opposed to addressing the symptoms. Why do you always get stressed about deadlines? Perhaps you don’t allow enough time. Do other people’s quirks make you get angry? Find ways to talk it through, instead of putting up with it.


Act to add value, without waiting to be told what to do.

Take the Initiative

Again, don’t wait for events. Call and ask for a catch up. Pick up the phone, rather than emailing. And if you suspect there’s a problem, don’t wait, get on the case.

Pro-active Actions Happen Out Of Desire For Positive Change

Time For Change written on light up box

Pro-active actions aren’t necessarily initiated in response to a situation. It’s like the old lightbulb joke. How many therapists does it make to change a lightbulb? Answer, one – but the lightbulb must want to change. Pro-active actions happen out of a desire to make a positive change, prepare for a possible situation, or prevent something happening.

People who make things happen, show pro-active behaviour. We said before how some individuals are naturally pro-active. But this is also a soft skill you can work on and acquire. Many experts believe everyone has the potential to be like this, but it depends on their motivation in the situation.

You can make yourself more pro-active by:

  • Thinking about what you’re going to do at work, before you get there.
  • Turning up to work early.
  • Asking colleagues for help.
  • Asking for feedback.
  • Writing daily to-do lists
  • Setting yourself reminders on your phone or laptop
  • Keeping a calendar of upcoming meetings and deadlines
  • Having a Plan B in case things don’t work out as expected
  • Doing research before a job interview
  • Exercising to stay healthy
  • Working on your mental health and wellbeing

Vulnerability Is the New Six-pack: Be Pro-active About Looking After Yourself

This brings us back to self-care. You need to be self-aware about this. Your pro-activity won’t be at its best, if you’re feeling stressed and your window of tolerance is reduced. This is important to remember. For sure, being pro-active is about building yourself up into a bit of a workplace superhero. But to stay pro-active, you need to look after yourself. And you’ll find being pro-active about your self-care will feed back into the other areas of your life.

Two men looking vulnerable sat down on white floor

Could You Become a Pro-active Boss?

If you are pro-active as a team member, you’re bound to be put in charge of people. But developing pro-activity shouldn’t stop when you’re promoted. If anything, you should intensify your efforts. Here are some hallmarks of a pro-active leader:

  • Think long term.
  • Inspire others.
  • Great listener and communicator.
  • Highly organised.
  • Great problem-solving skills.
  • Seek advice and help when required.
  • Compassionate, loyal and full of integrity.
  • Calm demeanour.
  • Know how to use the team’s strengths.
  • Take criticism well.

Pro-active leaders use their management roles to help others become pro-active by engaging and cooperating with the team. And they’re always looking for ways to improve.

Pro-activity: The Importance of Being Earnest

Being pro-active brings advantages to both your professional and private life:

  • Empowerment: You have greater control over your circumstances, and improved confidence to direct your life. And you can also create situations in which you can succeed.
  • Self-improvement: The one fixed point in a growth mind set is, your qualities aren’t fixed points! With a focused effort, you can improve your attributes and skills. And you know which ones to work on.
  • Getting round obstacles: You’re able to consider the obstacles you might face in a given situation. This will mean you take steps to prevent those obstacles arising, or lessen their severity.
  • Natural leadership: Because you anticipate the needs of your fellow team members, you can take the first step to discuss matters with them. This may mean you become their informal leader.
  • Less stress: By preventing problems and creating favourable circumstances, you will have reduced feelings of urgency and stress. Putting in additional effort means you get ahead in your work, meeting deadlines more easily. And foreseeing obstacles means you’re better able to face them.
  • Advancement: Being pro-active like this increases your promotion chances. Employers appreciate self-motivated employees who seek to do things better. Such employees often take on more meaningful assignments, and advance in the business.

And Finally… Pro-active Reading… Things Can Only Get Better

Pensive business man reading a book

A pro-active person is always looking ahead at future activities, projects and events, and anticipating needs, problems and possible outcomes. And they want to learn more. And that includes reading books and looking online.

Speaking of reading, as we said, being pro-active is habit number #1 in Stephen R. Covey’s the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. A man with strong personal values, Covey writes about the psychology and philosophy behind proactivity. He also talks about pro-activeness going hand in hand with self-awareness. That’s self-awareness, in the sense of stepping outside your immediate focus and seeing the bigger picture. Seeing what’s out there. But once you’ve seen it, then what? To be pro-active with your colleagues, you need to be self-aware, in the sense of appreciating how others see you.

Other people might see your urge to act in anticipation of future problems as a sign of anxiety, or even catastrophising. You need your evidence to hand, and your arguments rehearsed. You need to be assertive.

Things Can Only Get Better…

There’s research showing pro-activity drives performance and innovation in teams. And it boosts individuals’ careers and sense of wellbeing. It’s all too easy to get stuck in a job you hate. Your productivity falls, and you stop being pro-active. If you find you’re in a rut, be pro-active about doing something to help yourself, before things deteriorate further. To quote Barack Obama, “The best way to not feel hopeless is to get up and do something.”

As we said at the beginning, in Stephen R. Covey‘s words, pro-active people recognise they are “response-able” for their lives. These guys don’t blame their circumstances, conditions or past conditioning, they crack on. They know they can choose their behaviour. And that includes changing jobs. Or getting out of an unbearable situation and doing something altogether different.  Everyone has the potential to be pro-active. So, give it a try. Be pro-active, and see what happens!

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