Flower Power!

A client recently asked me to explain the concept of proactivity. The best examples of basic truths often come from nature, so let me tell you about a miraculous bunch of flowers currently growing in my wife’s garden. What makes them so amazing is they virtually appeared out of nowhere from a crack between two pavers, as you can see in the photo below. While the other plants have been carefully positioned in luxurious pots, with just the right mix of sun and shade, this vibrant bunch of violas has decided to grow and thrive in the middle of a concrete wasteland. This is what I call a plant with a proactive attitude!

Psychologists define proactivity as a tendency to make things happen, regardless of environmental barriers, rather than just adjusting to situations or waiting for things to happen. You are probably not surprised to hear there is a significant body of research showing that people who practice proactive behaviour perform better at work and in business.

Proof that proactivity counts

When we conducted a study to identify the predictors of franchisee performance, we included a proactivity test and compared the performance of people high and low on this measure. We discovered franchisees high on the proactivity scale were achieving 14% better financial results, driven largely by higher sales and their tendency to actively promote their businesses. After completing this research, I came across a 2013 paper in the Journal of Applied Psychology containing a meta-analysis of 163 independent studies into proactivity*. The results on over 36,000 people also found clear and compelling correlations with performance.

This explains why some businesses perform so well, despite being in a lousy location. Like the flowers blooming out of the concrete in my wife’s garden, these franchisees simply refuse to let environmental factors impede their growth. Here are some of the attitudes and habits of proactive people, as measured in the scientific literature.

  • They immediately address problems rather than waiting for someone else to do something.
  • They introduce changes in their work environment that will make them more effective.
  • They are always on the lookout for opportunities to improve their life.
  • They speak up in groups and make recommendations to make things work better for everyone.

The irony of this last behaviour is that it can sometimes make these people more difficult to work with. For instance, another finding in our study was franchisees high on proactivity were significantly more likely to be involved in disagreements with their franchisor. Perhaps this is the price we have to pay if we want to have high performers on our team! (Of course, smart franchisors remain open to suggestions for improvement and don’t fall into the trap of becoming defensive when questioned or challenged.)

In a nutshell, proactive people take responsibility for making things happen. The following sentence of two-letter words is a favourite of mine.


This certainly is a beautiful summary of the proactive mindset.

* Katharina Tornau & Michael Frese (2013). Construct Clean-Up in Proactivity Research: A Meta-Analysis.  Applied Psychology, 62(1) 44-96. 

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