A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
June 14th, 2012 by William

Proactive or Soothsayer?

The term “proactive” seems to be the most over used buzzword in business today, so let’s take a close look at its usage and meaning.

Dictionary.com defines proactive as; serving to prepare for, intervene in, or control an expected occurrence or situation, especially a negative or difficult one. The freedictionary.com provides another definition; acting in advance to deal with an expected difficulty, and; tending to initiate change rather than reacting to events.

There’s an interesting word in the above two dictionary definitions: “expected.” This means that, to be proactive, one must actively engage in change as a result of some “expected” event. However, in the context that it’s used in the workplace, it usually signifies an expectation by management that if people would only be more proactive, they’d be able to foresee “unexpected” problems before they happen and solve them before they become crises versus reacting in fire-fight mode.

The key point here is that to be proactive, most management expects people to possess the ability to “foresee” potential problems before they happen, i.e. to predict the future.

Problems we don’t know about until they happen are called “surprises.” Google defines a surprise as; an unexpected or astonishing event. The freedictionary.com defines it as; to encounter unexpectedly, or take, or catch unawares. The operative word in these definitions is “unexpected.” Thus, unexpected is the essence of a surprise.

The question then becomes how someone can be logically expected to be proactive and foresee something that is unexpected. Nowhere in any of the definitions of proactive does it say one must be able to foretell the unexpected.

So if management really wants the workforce to foretell the unexpected, then what they’re really looking for is an army of soothsayers; people able to foresee the future. However, I’ve never seen that skill listed in a job description or on a performance appraisal form.

If people and organizations were truly proactive in their thinking and attitudes, then the fact that the inevitable glitch will happen will be expected, and they would know how to react with calm and poise. What’s expected is that there will be things happening unexpectedly.

As Rahm Emanuel noted, we should use a crisis as an opportunity for real change. Recall the third definition: tending to initiate change rather than reacting to events. This then is the true meaning of “proactive.” This change component should be the essence of the proactive definition. However, the organizations that preach proactiveness the most are typically the least adaptive, or receptive, to change.

If the whole gist of being proactive is the ability to forecast problems that are yet unknown and take action to circumvent them from happening, then management wouldn’t need any other fancy tools to run the business. As a matter of fact, if the employees were so good at foretelling the future, they’d all win the lottery, and quit.

Isn’t it a bit naïve to think that you can catch all the potential problems beforehand? Go on using the word “proactive” all you want, but the only way to survive in today’s workplace is to understand:

  • You must be prepared for the unexpected
  • The unexpected will unexpectedly happen

Our decisions and best-laid plans rarely work out the way we expect. However, what often seems to be a surprise catastrophe, if treated correctly, can possibly be an opportunity for change. We’ve all heard of the immutable Murphy’s Law. There’s no truer law in the world of business. It’s immutable because no matter what proactive rhetoric an organization throws around, Murphy’s Law−and O’Toole’s Corollary of Finagle’s Law, which says that the perversity of a universe tends toward the maximum−will always prevail.

The real challenge for management is not being able to forecast problems; it’s learning how to react to them without panic.


2 Responses to “Proactive or Soothsayer?”
  1. Anonymous says

    Your blog is so informative keep up the good work!!!!

  2. I read your post and wished I was good enough to write it

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