Congress could learn a thing or two about acting proactively from Elon Musk, seen here with his Dragon space capsule. AP Photo/Jae C. Hong
Imagine you’re speeding along on a highway. Suddenly, the traffic ahead of you slows, forcing you to hit the breaks. Eventually you arrive at the source of the bottleneck: a mattress lying in the right lane. One by one, your fellow motorists simply crept around it. No one stopped to move it off the road to relieve the congestion.
Why would so many people fail to take action and (easily) fix the problem that slowed traffic to a crawl?
People – whether motorists, business leaders or lawmakers – are simply not very proactive. By that we mean humans have a tendency to keep doing what they’ve been doing, maintaining the status quo rather than breaking the flow and creating a better future. In the mattress example, it means driving around the obstruction rather than removing it, allowing the problem to continue indefinitely.
As researchers of organization behavior and leadership, we have long studied the nature of proactive behavior and how it helps people perform better at their jobs. Failing to behave proactively can be consequential as well, often negatively. For an apt illustration, look no further than the three-day federal shutdown that resulted from Congress’ failure to pass a budget.
People commonly think being proactive means simply starting sooner rather than later, not procrastinating, or taking initiative to get work done.
But it is far more than that. Your behavior is proactive when:
1.you choose it yourself rather than comply with external demands.
2.you execute strategically more than mindlessly.
3.you are future-focused rather than anchored in the present or past.
4.your intention is to change something for the better, thus to create a better future.