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Why Proactivity Is the Superpower You Can and Should Develop

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It’s fun to figure out our superpowers, but we also can develop and master new ones. In their work and lives, people underuse but can readily develop the best power source of all: to be more proactive. Far more than a cliché – ‘I (or we) should have been more proactive,’ – proaction is the path that creates better futures or at least avoids or softens the effects of bad futures.

What proaction really is

Proaction is worth viewing as a superpower because it is the ‘possible you’ that: 1) spots and prevents problems; 2) identifies, pursues, and captures opportunities; and, 3) creates a new, personally-chosen, desired future through a strategic change of trajectory.

Behaving proactively is distinctive and vital because most of what we do is pretty passive, and dictated by past habits and routines, current circumstances and pressures, or biases that support the status quo and keep us on a familiar path. Proaction thus differs markedly from our most common behaviours. The more significant the trajectory change that you attempt, and the more substantial and widespread the impact over time, the more proactive your actions.

Most of the research on this topic is published in organisational behaviour and management journals, but recently has spread to other fields and been identified as a ‘missing element’ in the personality literature.

People vary in the strength of their tendencies to behave proactively, but it’s not a fixed trait.  Proaction is a set of behaviours that anyone can execute, upon deciding to do so and knowing what they entail. Thus, the possibilities are endless, subject to the amounts of thought and effort people put into it.  

Proaction is what drives constructive change. It is essential to successful self-management, leadership and entrepreneurship, and even to tackling and solving society’s global challenges.

Personal payoffs of proaction at work

Since Mike Crant and I published a scale measuring a person’s tendency to behave proactively in 1993, many theories, research, and evidence have revealed the net positive consequences of behaving proactively.

For individuals, being proactive relates positively to job performance, team performance, career success (career satisfaction, pay, and advancement), and psychological well-being. Proactivity also predicts better results as a leader and in entrepreneurial pursuits. 

Knowing proaction’s power to achieve results and personal well-being, you can focus it on changing yourself or changing things outside yourself.  You can target your own behaviours – for example, strengthening your leadership tactics or work habits – or your job performance, overall health, or job stress. Or, you can aim your proaction at your circumstances (such as switching jobs, improving the work environment, leading strategic change and starting a new company) or other people (like coaching, mentoring, teamwork, or performance).

Of course, being proactive can be risky. Your boss might not want you to rock the boat or pursue new initiatives, or the objectives of your proactive efforts can be inappropriate, or the execution a costly failure.  Effective proaction requires strategic thinking and wise execution. It won’t surprise you when I say that unfortunately there’s a lot of poor execution out there, in the workplace and beyond.

Powerful proaction principles

Keeping our definition in mind, all proactive behaviours:

  • Are your own choices, taken thoughtfully and of your own free will;
  • Change direction towards a future that’s more appealing than where you are or see yourself heading, and;
  • Generate progress toward your desired future.

Some fundamental principles to follow

  • Think well ahead. Periodically take a long-term perspective. Use your uniquely human advantage: forethought. Predict where you (and things) are heading based on current trajectories, and envision possible better outcomes.
  • Self-direct. Proaction is a personal choice, not dictated by external factors. Make sure your decisions suit your own values and interests. Apply the mindset that you, and you along with colleagues, can change your actions to create desired outcomes.
  • Think strategically. Choose your proactive targets and behaviours thoughtfully. How will others react? How can you enlist their support?
  • Swing into action. Proaction requires not just thinking, but doing. ‘Doers’ can be action-oriented without thinking strategically, and ineffective in making their desired impact. Thinkers, dreamers, visionaries are proactive only if they take thoughtful action and make progress towards their new goals.
  • Adapt wisely. Learn and adapt rapidly through trial and error. Maintain your strategic vision while making tactical changes as circumstances suggest.
  • Persevere to impact. Grit matters, but you also need to learn along the way and adjust.  Revisit ‘Adapt wisely’ above.

Pause here to think about what humans need. In work and in life, people want autonomy, to feel competent and in control, to relate to others, and to have a sense of purpose and meaning.  Proactive behaviours are self-chosen, directed at personally-appealing long-term goals, and pursued thoughtfully. When you add to this mix authentic collaboration with others, you are: 1) engaging in real leadership, and 2) employing a power that can deliver those needs– over time, for the long haul – or yourself and others.

The Conversation***

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on Psychology Today

Thomas Bateman is Professor Emeritus with the McIntire School of Commerce, University of Virginia.


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