How to be more Proactive for those around you

Years ago now, I was working as a technical expert. I loved the work. It was exciting, I got to play with millions of dollars of equipment, and I was a key member of the team - and it almost killed me...

Being a key member had its drawbacks. One of which was that I was indispensable. I now understand that I painted myself into the indispensable position and became my own worst enemy to my growing workload. I had this strange ability to turn normal, smart individuals into five-year-old children unable to tie their own shoelaces. I was able to expertly remove their proactiveness. These previously smart people would call on me for advice, suggestions and to make decisions at any time, day or night. Very stressful, and entirely my own fault. At the time I didn't realise what I was doing.

What does it mean to be proactive?

Almost every manager I've ever spoken to wants to have proactive employees. Every employee I've ever met, or been, sits somewhere on a continuum of proactiveness. On one side you have micromanagement, on the other completely independent workers. I break this continuum into 4 main groups of proactiveness. Where someone is located can be immediately identified through his or her behaviour (and also through the behaviour of their manager) and it is possible to encourage the people you work with to move through the groups. I would expect most people would want to move into group 4, the most proactive. However I'll discuss how to go backwards for completeness...

 Proactiveness scale

Depending on where your co-workers fit within these groups makes a huge difference to your working day. These groups are:

1. Wait to be told what and usually how to do something.
2. Ask if they can do something.
3. Do something and immediately check it is ok.
4. Do something and let you know the final results.

Group one usually is unskilled labour. We also see this behaviour with young children. This loads most of the thinking and decision making onto the manager (or you). Usual employee statements will be "I'm bored", "I'm finished with this activity, what is next?" etc.

Group two will work happily keeping themselves busy. Until there is a decision that falls outside, or sometimes even near their area of control. Then they forward the decision over to their manager or some other authority. Typical statements are "Can I do X?", "I want to X, is that ok?"

Group three is where we start to delegate effectively. This is where people start to make their own decisions, though they are usually not comfortable enough to do so without checking. Usual statements are "I'm going to X, is that ok?" "I've just done X, and I'm waiting on the result". As a side note, here is where people begin to internalise the questions they asked in group two. They begin to ask themselves the questions they asked of someone else.

Group four is usually where you want most people to be, most of the time. This is where they do their job, and check in every now and again to update you on their progress. Typical statements are "Here is where we are with X" "Project Y is nearing completion and will be finished by Thursday".

How to help someone be more (or less) proactive

So, how do we encourage the people around us in business to move along this line to where we want them to be to enable us to most comfortable in our own work?

Step 1 - Awareness. Become aware of which group you fall into, and the groups that the people around you fall into. Knowing where you are on the line means you can make a knowledgeable decision on what to do next to get you closer to you goal. Knowing which group you are in usually matches the group of the people around you.

Step 2 - Ask the right questions, or make the right statements to get them moving in the direction that you want.

If you want someone to move to the right, a very powerful question, that everyone should know is "what do you think?" This question quickly hands back the decision and responsibility to the other person. When you do this, resist the urge to make the 'final' decision on what activities to perform.

If you want someone to move to the left, the usual way is to give them direct commands. "I want you to do X, Y, Z." Begin to micromanage by asking detail orientated how questions.

Understand that when someone comes to you and asks "I'm done with this project, do you have anything else I can do?" if you give them a direct answer, or more work, you are actively encouraging them to stay in group 1 and 2.

When you answer their questions directly you are:
- making them dependent on you (which might well be your intention - moving them to the left),
- limiting their career progression,
- increasing your own workload and stress (they will keep coming to you for their next job).

When you ask them, "What do you think?" you begin to move them through to groups 3 and 4. The reason is because they begin to ask these questions for themselves before coming to you.

Moving someone along the line does not happen immediately. It might take them 20 times to move someone from group one to group two. Above all, you need to be consistent. If you flip back and forth, so will the people around you. Your results will be limited as a result.

To fix my own problem, once I realised what I was doing, I began to push back on the phone calls - if the request did not need my direct input or action, I handed it back to the questioner. It was hard to do this at the start. I wanted to answer their questions, I wanted to be helpful. The more I moved the questioners from groups 1 and 2 into groups 3 and 4, the more time I had, the less stress I experienced, and the more I got done in less time.


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