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Is “Proactive” Always Better Than “Reactive”?

A few weeks ago, during a coaching conversation, a business leader made a comment to me about the blind spots within his team. He was highly frustrated by the way his team was making choices and decisions. He went on in great detail to explain all the ways they were being “reactive” to the market place. What he wanted more than anything else was a team that was making decisions in a “proactive” way. He wanted to see them push forward, and not allow themselves to be held back by what other companies were doing and what the marketplace was dictating. “The best teams I have ever been on have been proactive,” he kept saying. “Great teams are proactive.”

We dug further. “Tell me more about the market environment in your industry right now,” I asked. And the leader went into great detail to describe their current environment: still highly volatile market because of Covid, lots of concern about the current political environment, significant pricing pressure, huge public relations pressure in a highly visible industry, and a rapidly changing landscape. He described an environment that was changing quickly, with sigificant risk. “Things are changing weekly, sometimes daily,” he told me. “I have never seen a market like this before.”

“Are we sure that being highly proactive is the smartest play, then?” I asked.

There are always multiple ways to look at any problem, and I always get uncomfortable when ever anyone speaks in absolutes. The words “always” or “never” are occasionally appropriate in a business context. There are some situations where the “absolute” thought process is indeed appropriate. But in my experience, the list of situations where the absolute mindset is required is pretty short. My colleagues and I are big believers in situational awareness, and therefore, reading the landscape and staying agile is a pretty important skill, in our experience. Let’s look back at 2020 to illustrate the point.

Being proactive in your decision making and behaviors can be a really good way to operate. That is especially true in stable, predictable environments. When you can look ahead and make reasonably good predictions about how things will play out, then it makes sense to map a strategy, set out your next several moves, and push forward boldly. I think back to the way my leadership team and I made our business choices in the months and years pre-Covid. It was often possible to look ahead 12-18 months, and have a reasonably strong idea of how the market was reacting, what our clients would want, and plan accordingly. Our standard operating procedure was to be making decisions and choices looking ahead 6-12 months. We were comfortable being highly proactive, and rarely regretted making forward-looking choices. 

But being proactive is not always a good thing. In highly volatile, unstable markets, if you get too far ahead of yourself, and lean into your proactive approach too much, you could easily regret it. When the landscape is changing quickly, and it is hard to predict what your competition, your clients, or the marketplace will do and how everyone else will react, than a highly proactive approach could be a really dangerous thing. I also think back to the ways in which my leadership team and I navigated the second and third quarters of 2020. Just mere months earlier, we believed we were in a highly stable environment, and long-term planning and a proactive approach were highly desirable. But once the world changed in March 2020, and the landscape was changing weekly, even daily at times, a highly forward-looking approach became very dangerous. Our definition of “long term planning” went from 6-12 months to 1-2 weeks. The best, smartest way to proceed was to keep a keen eye and ear out for what was happening, and to make far more cautious choices based on more immediate intelligence. The best thing, by far, that our team could do was be much more reactive in our decision making. The landscape was changing too quickly and too dramatically. 

Being proactive is not a bad thing. It is often the best way to proceed, with confidence and conviction. But not always. There are also plenty of moments in time, when getting too proactive becomes a terrible way to proceed. Sometimes the best thing you can do is pull back a bit, and avoid making too many proactive decisions that could end up blowing up in your face.

My advice? Maintain a high level of situational awareness, and make sure of two things:

  1. Make sure your your team is capable of being proactive and reactive. You want to have both skill sets in your team’s quiver. There will be times when each will be required, and will serve you well.
  2. Make sure you and your team can read the wind shifts well enough to know when each is called for. It is not enough to just have different tools and skills. You also need to know when to deploy one or the other.  

That’s the conversation I had with this business leader. Did I persuade him to change his approach? I am not sure. I will let you know in 6-12 months.

Have a great day, and good luck!

At The Latimer Group, we believe that great communication skills can change the world. We transform people and organizations with simple, repeatable techniques and mindsets. We teach persuasive communication skills through an integrated platform of corporate training, coaching, and eLearning. To learn more about how we can transform your organization, e-mail us at info@TheLatimerGroup.com

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