Three Ways to Boost Proactivity

prōˈaktiv - creating or controlling a situation by causing something to happen rather than responding to it after it has happened

Most leaders welcome and reinforce a proactive orientation in their people. Alas, they are often in the minority. But even then, there are things a leader can do to encourage proactivity. I’ll offer you three ways to boost proactivity and some advice for how to approach the process.

Promote an Internal Locus of Control

This factor concerns perception, attitude, and skilled action. If one is to initiate action on matters for which they have accountability, they must: 1) see (perception) the need or opportunity to take action; 2) feel responsible (attitude) for taking action; and 3) break the inertia of merely thinking by initiating skilled action and accepting risk.

When our state of mind and dispositional tendencies are distinguished by these factors, we believe that we as individual agents have control, even if not absolute, to influence outcomes by asserting our will. Some of us are naturally disposed in this way, but many are not. So, as a leader, you will often need to coach your people in how to cultivate this mindset, motivation, and readiness to act.

You can do this by reviewing a challenging task with them. Start small and coax this initiative from them: “Where do you see opportunities to or needs take action on X? Okay, how might you approach that action, what role should you play, and what next steps should you take? Great, so tell me what you are going to do today or tomorrow to get started, and how you can build on that initiative?”

Cultivate a Sense of Self-Efficacy

This factor overlaps the first. But it focuses on building a base of confidence over time, confidence in oneself. Even if I don't feel a strong sense of internal control at the outset, if I've developed an experience-based history of learning how to figure things out, that will help generate the qualities of perception, attitude, and skilled action that activate an internal locus of control.

The leader’s role is to reinforce grounded confidence by reviewing experiences, whether failed or successful, noting lessons learned. Too much confidence (false confidence) is not self-efficacy. Leaders need not lavish praise; that leads to grandiosity. It’s better to affirm gains and recognize that we may not always get it right, or get it right the first time, but we can usually land on our feet.

Self-efficacy thus characterized promotes resilience and resourcefulness. It breeds a hardiness that enables us to take on new challenges while keeping us humble enough to learn. Like the locus of control, our confidence and sense of self-efficacy can be shaken from time to time. But when it’s cultivated with this kind of coaching from a leader it becomes an increasingly secure base of proactivity.

Seeking Help, Leveraging Others

Grounded confidence, mature self-efficacy, and the capacity to regain an internal locus of control may sound like internal, individual qualities of the person. But recall the coaching moments I've suggested along the way. Upon reflection, we see that these qualities, like other elements of self-identity, are born in interactions with others. And they take on meaning and practical value in our social environment.

So, as we cultivate individual qualities of proactivity, we should also be learning to identify and draw upon resources (relationships, special skills of others) in our operating environment. Indeed, that should becomes a theme in our coaching. Proactivity is more than an individual quality; it’s a contagious quality that can take hold in work groups and teams. And in that context, we naturally reinforce one another's proactivity.

In this connection, you consider matching up the more naturally proactive with those who may be more deferential or struggle with confidence or risk-taking. And when you do this, make it clear that this is not time for the proactive model to preen and strut; it’s time for him or her to be a team player and encourage the proactivity of others.