What does it mean to be reactive or proactive at work? Business experts often extol the benefits of proactivity (and the downsides of reactivity). But we’re going to talk about them in a different light: as personality traits that impact a person’s working style, both with advantages and challenges.
A quick reminder before we dive in: whether a person is reactive or proactive is only one element of their overall personality profile. Be sure to consider their other traits, as well as their overall personality types (A, B, C, and D in our tests).
What does it mean to be reactive at work?
Someone who is reactive tends to wait for things to happen before they act. However, once things happen, reactive employees are generally capable of working very quickly and flexibly.
What are the characteristics of a reactive person?
Here are a few signs that someone you’re working with has a reactive personality:
- They wait until problems pop up to address the underlying issue… or might only ever address the symptom.
- When problems do occur, they’re usually quick to address things.
- They tend to manage the pressure of “putting out fires” fairly well.
- They work well under pressure and exercise good judgment on the fly.
- Some may struggle to stay on top of things and find themselves constantly playing catch-up.
How to work with someone who has reactive personality traits
Reactive people bring the benefit of sharp reaction skills to the workplace, but they can also frustrate the more proactive employees of their teams.
How to train a reactive employee
How to motivate someone who is reactive
- Clearly detail the tasks, deadlines, and goals the reactive employee should be focused on.
- Coach the employee on how to react to problems and spot opportunities. Some reactive employees will overreact and become easily stymied; talk them through problem-solving steps and strategies.
How to give feedback to a reactive employee
- If you can, have the person “own” tasks that involve a lot of reacting (such as fielding help desk tickets, fixing tech glitches, or whatever makes sense for their role).
- Recognize and acknowledge when your reactive employees handle a tricky problem quickly and smoothly.
- Give frequent feedback. When the feedback feels continuous, normal, and expected, employees will give it the appropriate weight and see it as part of the bigger picture.
- Reactive employees will tend to overreact if feedback is sporadic or only about problems. (It’s not great for proactive employees, either.)
What is the opposite of reactive personality traits?
Proactive employees represent the other end of the spectrum. Rather than waiting for problems and opportunities to present themselves, proactive people go out and make things happen.
What does it mean to be proactive at work?
People who possess the proactive personality trait tend to strive for a specific goal. They make things happen and are generally good and maneuvering situations (and people) towards their desired outcome.
What are the characteristics of a proactive person?
Here are a few signs of an employee with proactive personality traits:
- They ask questions, suggest ideas, and make comments on things beyond the scope of their day-to-day tasks.
- They anticipate potential problems and work to solve underlying issues before trouble starts.
- “Wait and see” is not in their vocabulary.
- They tend to be good at working with (or sometimes manipulating) other people to get the outcome they want.
- Others might become frustrated by their single-mindedness.
How to work with someone who has proactive personality traits
There are steps you can take to ensure that the proactive people on your team thrive.
How to train a proactive person
How to motivate a proactive employee
- Put the proactive personality trait to good use! Give plenty of details about goals, projects, and potential pitfalls so that proactive employees can dream up realistic new ideas and solutions.
- Clearly define priorities and responsibilities. Proactive people sometimes go too far beyond the scope of their role in a way that isn’t helpful.
How to give feedback to someone who is proactive
- Make sure your proactive employee has time to think ahead and be proactive. They won’t be happy playing catch-up long term.
- Give space for proactivity! Many employers pay lip service to the virtues of being proactive… but don’t have time when employees suggest new ideas, point out opportunities for growth, or try new ways of doing something. If you really listen to your team’s proactive feedback and take it seriously, even if things can’t change, you’ll do wonders for morale.
- You may have to draw clear boundaries about what things your proactive employee “owns” and what they don’t. For example, if a proactive person is doing another person’s job because they just can’t wait, make sure you clearly communicate that it’s not OK.
- Keep an eye out for things your proactive employees do that go above and beyond. Proactive people will often go out of their way to make things better and fix problems that everyone else ignores. Make sure you’re noticing that effort and thanking your proactive employee.
Which is better in the workplace: reactive vs. proactive?
Both reactive and proactive people bring strengths and weaknesses to the table. Being reactive or proactive at work might be especially important for certain roles. It also depends on the employee’s other major personality traits; read all of our personality trait descriptions for more insight, or learn about the four personality types.
Understanding the difference between these traits can help you tap into your team’s strengths and hire more effectively for open roles. Hire Success offers additional insight into both your current employees and your potential hires.
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