To be proactive is to act in a way that causes change by taking action, rather than reacting to changes.
When thinking about proactively at work, the image of the employee who takes initiative and makes things happen comes to mind.
But though such an employee is of value to any company, this is not all that proactively means.
Sometimes the best employees, those we can count on to deliver the finest results, can be somewhat reactive in some important aspects of the job.
There are several areas where we tend to avoid taking the reins into our hands:
1. Saying no
2. Promoting our personal and professional interests
3. Collaborating with colleagues
But is work really the place to say no?
Work is not only a legitimate but a necessary place to use the ability to say no.
People who find it hard to say no at work find themselves busy all day long with million things that have nothing to do with their actual scope of work.
To say no is first and foremost to say no to requests for help, not to all obviously but to some. Many find it difficult to do because they fear damage to both relationships and image.
Those who have acquired the name of someone who is always ready to help will find themselves the first to whom people turn while others can answer the same need.
Sometimes such a person will find themselves doing for others things they can do for themselves. It might have taken them more time but they would also gain the knowledge required to deal with similar situations in the future.
And what about the fear of looking bad or hurting others? It might happen, but it really depends on how you do it and in what context. When you start saying no (or “not right now” which can lead to the applicant finding another solution in the meantime), you will find that sometimes things go more smoothly than you imagined.
Being able to say no to requests for help is being proactive about your time.
Sometimes you’ll have to find the courage to say no to your supervisors.
You might have an expertise no one else has and because of that, you find yourself taking care of something that is no longer within your responsibility, sometimes for hours and days.
You might have gotten a promise that someone else will fill your place, yet no one found the time and willingness to make it happen.
In such a case, it’s not only okay but required to stand up for yourself and make it clear that you are willing to teach someone else but not to do it yourself again.
Sometimes the need to say no stems from a commitment to your personal time and emotional wellness. “I won’t be able to provide it at the time you requested in light of the additional tasks I have, we can re-prioritize my tasks together.” Or, “I don’t work at night.”
It’s important to remember that even though it may seem that way at times, the world is not going to fall apart if some task is slightly delayed.
As with any act of setting boundaries, there is a risk here – the risk that saying no will affect your status and even might lead to dismissal. But if you are an appreciated employee the chance of that is small, and staying in the current situation means constant frustration, as well as a delay in achieving your goals.
Another area where we tend to avoid being proactive is with our direct supervisors and managers who are more senior than us.
I’m talking about speaking your mind, doing everything in your power to advance your goals, and making sure that the things you were promised come true.
We avoid this mainly because we tend to perceive managers as parental figures and impose unrealistic expectations on them.
Many of us have an idea of how a parent should behave, and we compare our parents to this image and judge them harshly for their shortcomings and weaknesses.
When we say, “A manager is supposed to…,” or, “I expect someone who is a manager to be able to…,” we are doing the same thing – comparing the manager to the image of the ideal manager, which is often far from reality.
Managers are only human beings who deal with a lot of pressures and personal matters, and who have human shortcomings and weaknesses.
If a manager is dishonest or abusive, this should be addressed via the proper channels.
But if we are bitter because we feel our manager doesn’t push things hard enough, doesn’t see things correctly, misses what’s important, or still hasn’t fulfilled his promise – we are mostly hurting ourselves.
In such situations, we might be frustrated for something we could have promoted relatively easily by simply saying something directly, insisting once again on something we want, or reminding someone of something that was promised and didn’t happen yet.
Many won’t say anything, try to convey the message indirectly, or wait a long while for the performance evaluation talk instead of being direct and initiating an active conversation.
Obviously, it’s also important to know when to stop, but many don’t reach this stage. Instead, they stew in their anger while automatically assuming things are personal when often this is not the case.
Being proactive can also benefit us when collaborating with colleagues.
It’s easier with those who report to us since by virtue of their role they were supposed to receive instructions from us. But what happens when it comes to colleagues who have their own priorities? Who are busy with a million different things?
In such cases, we may often find ourselves disappointed, either because of a delay in supplying what was promised or inadequate quality.
Therefore, when collaborating with colleagues there are some proactive actions that can save us energy and time:
- Clarify what exactly we need.
- Agree on a schedule that suits both parties and put things in writing.
- Take full responsibility – When we consider ourselves responsible for the project as a whole, including the parts others are supposed to provide us, we’ll take any necessary action to ensure things happen on time and according to our requirements.
More often than not we accept without saying the other party’s explanations (or excuses) for their inability to provide us with what we need, or for not taking ownership of something they were supposed to; and sometimes we provide explanations for them even before we ask. “They’re already used to me doing it,” or “They won’t do it anyway.”
We also tend to forget that everyone has a lot of pressure and everyone deals with endless things that grab their attention. Thus, when we avoid reminding others of what we need, our task might be pushed to the bottom of the order of priorities.
My invitation is to start with one small step; saying no, being more direct in your requests, or making a follow-up where it’s needed.