Being proactive is often held up as a great behaviour, and rightly so. Most of us would claim to be proactive – after all who wants to admit that they just let things happen to them and their organisations when they could be doing something about it up front?
Whilst scoping the work I am currently doing with a large UK company, we identified that when trying to be proactive in its people agenda, the company might actually unwittingly be passing on a ‘reactive’ behaviour style to the leaders in the organisation. How can that be?
Many organisations are on the front foot in understanding that a strong people agenda can help create the great leaders and great employees that builds and sustains superior, lasting performance levels within that organisation. Initiatives such as annual (plus sometimes half year) performance reviews and annual employee surveys are both stock items in the kit bag of the proactive and conscientious HR team and business leader.
Could though these seemingly proactive initiatives actually be REACTIVE?
In my mind proactive means getting ahead of the game, shaping the future before it happens. Reactive, of course, is the opposite – deciding on the best course of action after the event, once something is known.
Too many employees only find out about their performance once or twice a year, in a reactive way, in those set piece reviews. The nature of the word ‘review’ also means after the event, so how are leaders meant to be proactive when they are required to be reactive? How does the proactive leader balance the need to complete these actions whilst striving to be proactive?
What’s important is to ensure that no employee is surprised in an annual review. Prompt (like there and then, or at worst same day) feedback and discussions on observed actions and behaviours is the proactive way to manage employees, and ensure they are aware of the change you want to see and the support they will receive in making those changes. Come review time, you and they should know full well whether they have successfully made those changes.
Let’s take the same principle and look at employee surveys. Once a year, leaders ask their employees what they think of the year that has just gone, then after the results are in and analysed, they set up initiatives to tackle the areas of negative feedback. However, the proactive people leader will already know where they can support their employees more, as they will continually be building great relationships, having those difficult conversations throughout the year, and requesting and receiving feedback as readily as they are providing it. As the proactive organisation finds a way to support individual employees, as well measure and address trends across larger groups of employees, there will cease to be surprising and poor feedback in your annual survey for you to need to react to.
Giving leaders the skills and confidence to be truly proactive need not be difficult. Whilst proactive conversations are usually the scary ones, as giving and requesting feedback is a huge deal for many managers, through good training and (crucially) great follow up and support to practice their new found skills, leaders will embrace the empowerment that comes with building great relationships with their team, and with managing those employees with a proactive mindset. This change in leadership behaviour breeds a proactive culture throughout the organisation, building a head of steam towards a place where leaders and employees aren’t content with the status quo but want to question and solution their way to higher performance.
So whilst I am not discouraging the annual review or the employee survey, I firmly believe that neither should tell the recipients anything they don’t already know and that they have been actively working towards addressing – so no reaction necessary.
I work a lot with leaders in all types of companies and markets, and I focus specifically on Proactive Leadership, along with Strategic Thinking, Culture Building and Continuous Improvement, and I’d love to know your views on the relationship between reactive and proactive leadership.