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Reactive vs. proactive management styles: Which one gets results?

February 17, 2022 - 17 min read

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A tale of two managers

Is it better to be proactive or reactive?

What causes a reactive mindset?

Qualities of proactive leaders

How to be a more proactive manager

Being a manager isn’t always putting out fires — but it can certainly feel that way. In a perfect world, you’d be able to anticipate every worst-case scenario. But life — and business — rarely work out that way. 

Every leader needs to have a mix of skills — the ability to be both proactive and reactive. Understand what proactive and reactive management styles are and how to best use them in this article.

A tale of two managers

Let's imagine that it's the holiday season. Every year, a retail store gets slammed with shoppers looking for the best bargain. The sales team counts on these last-minute shoppers. Their purchases help the store in order in their final push to meet sales goals for the fiscal year.

Manager A is dreading the upcoming season. Even though it's the busiest time of year, this is when they have the most call-outs and staffing issues. People are constantly shopping, but they’re all looking for sales and good deals. As a result, the store still has a hard time meeting its goals. 

By the time the end of the year rolls around, everyone is stressed, and half of the staff has quit.

Manager B knows that the holidays can be rough. They start hiring people for the holiday season early in the fall. By the time the holidays come around, the store is well-staffed and the employees are well-trained. To drive sales, they host a series of smaller sales events to learn which products are the most popular. Each staff member takes a workshop on sales training strategies

In the weeks leading up to the holiday, the store contacts regular customers and offers them a discount if they make a shopping appointment. By the time the holidays roll around, the store has already exceeded its goal. They also have fewer last-minute shoppers, so the store doesn’t need to be fully staffed. More employees get to spend time with their loved ones instead of working late. 

So what's the difference? One manager took a reactive approach, and the other manager took a proactive approach.

It's impossible to anticipate every circumstance. No leader or organization can be proactive all the time. But if you're reactive all the time, you may spend a lot of time in “fire-fighting mode.” Your team may get frustrated that you didn't have contingency plans in place for foreseeable challenges.

Is it better to be proactive or reactive?

In general, it’s better to be proactive. That means that you try to consider situations before they arise to make sure your team is prepared for them. As the saying goes, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of the cure.”

However, there are benefits and drawbacks to both leadership styles. Future-minded leaders need to be skilled at both proactive and reactive management styles. This is especially true as the world of work changes. The COVID-19 pandemic and the shift to remote work has increased the need for agile leaders who can adapt quickly to changing circumstances.

Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of reactive and proactive leadership.

Pros of proactive leadership:

Proactive leaders (and their teams) are confident in their ability to foresee and plan around potential challenges. 

When difficulties arise, the response time is often shortened by having a strong plan in place.

Proactive managers often allocate more time and resources to skills development, training, and mentoring their teams.

Cons of proactive leadership:

Leaders who prioritize a proactive approach need to be sure to leave time for day-to-day tasks and urgent matters.

Those who are too big picture-focused may leave their teams feeling like they’re out of touch.

It’s impossible to anticipate every situation. Trying to do so can lead to “analysis paralysis,” where people feel immobilized until they have all the facts.

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Pros of reactive leadership:

Reactive teams can work very well under pressure. They have excellent problem-solving skills that are battle-tested.

Reactive people are often more comfortable with uncertainty and trying different approaches.

Individual contributors display high levels of ownership. They don't worry about planning everything out perfectly or running ideas by a chain of command before they act.

Cons of reactive leadership:

Always being in problem-solving mode isn’t good for morale. It can feel like there’s “always an emergency.”

When leaders are constantly putting out fires, they don’t have the time to devote to long-term planning.

It’s difficult to measure which methods were the most effective or predict success in the future.

reactive-vs-proactive-manager-working-at-desk

What causes a reactive mindset?

No leader walks into work and says “I'm here just to deal with problems.” Leaders want to be able to set a vision for their team, achieve the goals they set, and help people develop in their careers. But sometimes, external factors affect leaders in ways that prevent them from being as forward-thinking as they would like.

Every leader and every workplace encounters challenges. But when circumstances feel out of control, it’s easy to start feeling a bit reactive.

These environments are overrun by the tyranny of urgency. There are a few factors that contribute to high stress and urgency in workplaces:

1. A culture of presenteeism

Employees benefit from taking time away from work. If they don’t feel like they can take time off, even when they’re sick, morale suffers. This culture of “show up no matter what” is detrimental to the workplace.

2. Poor priorities

Teams benefit from a clear set of priorities. When they fail to set a target that everyone can work towards, people often scatter their energy in different directions. This can make it feel like your team’s efforts are “all over the place” or that nothing’s ever finished.

3. Hypercompetitiveness 

Competition can be invigorating and motivating in an office. But when people feel that they need to fight to get ahead — or even keep their jobs — it saps energy. You can’t plan ahead if you’re always watching your back.

4. Lack of resources

Working on a shoestring budget or with a skeleton crew? If your team is stretched thin, proactive thinking will fall through the cracks. Companies in “survival mode” have a hard time thinking more than a step or two ahead. Even when they do, they often don’t have the resources to invest in anything that won’t have an immediate payoff.

5. Burnout

Are your employees or managers burned out? Proactive thinking takes a certain amount of energy and optimism. Those can be in short supply when you’re feeling burned out. You’ll need to handle well-being before you can start thinking about anything else. 

The good news is that reprioritizing to be less reactive can actually help reduce burnout and boost employee well-being

The urgent/important matrix was first outlined by President Eisenhower and popularized by Stephen Covey. It helps people and organizations split tasks into four quadrants.

a-matrix-that-can-be-used-to-determine-priorities-time-management

In today's hyper-connected world, we tend to focus on the tasks that are the most urgent. That includes ringing phones, pinging notifications, and the manager that’s threatening to quit if they don’t get a raise.

Often, the most important task that we have to do are not urgent at all. And many of our urgent tasks could have been handled before they became emergencies. That's where a proactive attitude is helpful. As leaders, if we can learn to handle day-to-day tasks while still making time to plan for potential future events, we become more effective. Prioritizing tasks and situations when they're important (but not urgent) prevents them from becoming problems.

Qualities of proactive leaders

What does a proactive leader look like? 

For starters, they are team-oriented. They know the importance of developing leaders and look for opportunities to invest time into their teams.

They try not to be a bottleneck for their teams. They encourage other people to talk through both short-term and long-term scenarios to look for potential problems. They empower their teams to take action and help them become self-reliant.

Even though these leaders are excellent problem solvers, they don’t spend all their time trying to fix problems. They split their time between working towards the team’s goals and trusting that they can handle unforeseen issues when they arise.

Proactive people don’t try to anticipate everything. They listen to their team’s input. They are as reflective as they are forward-thinking. They systematically look back on what worked and what didn’t work so they can increase their chances of success. 

These leaders are open to new approaches as long as they are aligned with the values of the organization.

reactive-vs-proactive-manager-looking-at-papers

How to be a more proactive manager

Part of your responsibility as a leader is to handle challenges as they arise. In those cases, reactive strategies are helpful. The trick is to bring a proactive mindset even when you have to react to changing circumstances.

Here are some ways to be a more proactive manager:

1. Do some strategic planning

Where do you think your company going? What will you need — and who will you need to be — in order to get there? Both companies and individuals benefit from strategic planning. At BetterUp, we measure strategic planning as a skill with the Whole Person Model. People who grow this skill are better able to think proactively (both at work and in their own lives) to plan how to reach their goals.

2. Anticipate your growth

Imagine that you’ve accomplished your biggest goals. What problems would you have? Take steps to inhabit that solution in advance.

What does that mean? For example, you may want to increase your client base by 10x. What would that look like? What would you need to have in place? Can you start identifying and training new account executives? Can you upgrade to a new platform that can handle a larger bank of clients?

3. Track your time 

What do you spend a lot of time doing? What do you do that could be done smoother, easier, or by someone else? 

If you're struggling with this now, these pressure points will likely be the first areas to show strain when you grow. Can you streamline these tasks or delegate them? Do they need to be done at all?

4. Ask your team for feedback

Remember those Dilbert cartoons that made fun of “big picture thinking?” One of the drawbacks of proactive thinking is that leaders who only talk about “the big picture” can seem out of touch.

Touch base with your staff and the people who interact directly with your customers regularly. What questions are coming up consistently? What do they think you need to plan for? Make it easy for them to provide you with feedback, information, and ideas on a regular basis.

5. Develop self-awareness

Reactive thinking can leave you feeling as if you’re constantly under stress. This happens because you're always playing catch-up or “waiting for the other shoe to drop.” You don't really have time to plan for contingencies, and that can leave your bandwidth pretty stretched. 

Stressful situations come up, though — no matter how well you plan. Cultivating self-awareness can help you stay calm when you're under stress. You’ll be more effective in a crisis — and more reassuring to your team — when you don't lose your head every time something happens. 

6. Work with a coach

A mentor, senior leader, or coach is vital for managers and business owners. In fact, there are some very good reasons why every leader should work with a coach

As the saying goes, it's lonely at the top. Leaders need just as much support as their teams do, but they may not know where to go to get it. As people grow into leadership roles and the needs of the team get bigger, having a person who can step back and provide alternate perspectives is often invaluable. 

7. Stay focused on what matters

As a teenager, I worked as a barista in a local coffee shop. I loved my job and I was a pretty ambitious kid, so I quickly set my sights on getting promoted. I figured if I worked really hard and did everything perfectly, I’d be a shift supervisor in no time. 

One day, my supervisor saw me washing dishes. I had all my attention on getting that dish perfectly clean, so I was completely surprised to hear him greet a waiting customer.

After the customer had her coffee and was on her way, my supervisor gently reminded me that nothing was more important than our customers. “As long as we’re open, you have to look out for them,” he said. “Nothing can have 100% of your attention or energy, because you always need to know what’s going on around you. If you're going to be a supervisor, you're going to have to learn how to prioritize, because things change all the time.”

Often, new managers are independent contributors who were promoted for their excellent work. They tend to be especially prone to “do-it-all-myself syndrome.” As managers learn how to be proactive, they’ll master the balance of planning ahead while dealing with challenges as they arise.

Final thoughts

It's not possible to be proactive all the time, but it’s not practical to be in problem-solving mode all the time either. Proactive means learning to dance between the day-to-day while keeping one eye on the future. 

Finding this balance between reactive vs proactive management styles isn't easy, but you don't have to do it alone. Working with a mentor or coach to develop self-awareness and perspective can help you become a more effective, less reactive leader.

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Published February 17, 2022

Allaya Cooks-Campbell

BetterUp Staff Writer

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