The proactivity fallacy


Imagine this situation: you have been promoted to a management position for the first time, you're excited about working with your new teammates and ready to start learning. A few months go by and you feel lost, you're not sure what is expected of you so you focus on what you think it's important. At some point you may sense something is not going great with the team and you bring it up to your manager for advice and their response is that you should've flagged that before and that you should've ask for advice earlier because that's expected of you and by not doing so you were not proactive. All you can think of is how was I supposed to know?

Unfortunately, that was my experience in one of my official manager positions i had.

The proactivity fallacy

What i described before is what I like to call the proactivity fallacy: the notion that any organizational problems and dysfunctions can be solved by being more proactive.

This is a fallacy because it assumes that by being extra proactive, by doing more, you can overcome any problem, even though the problem is not clear and no one has set the right expectations. While proactivity is a very important quality in any person, believing that proactivity in itself will triumph the lack of clear expectations or the lack of clear communication is a sure way to failing, or, at the very least, to frustration and resentment because it removes the focus from the problem and the people creating it and focuses on the person having to deal with an unknown problem

Where does it originate?

I think it originates at the management level, where expectations, goals and processes should be clearly set and communicated. It's a complex, time-consuming job where it's very hard to make everyone happy. But if i, as a manager, can hold other people accountable for any organizational problem because they are not being proactive enough, then my job becomes so much easier.

Closing thoughts

If you read this far you may be asking how do we get out of this situation?. Sadly i don't have a silver bullet. This is not something easy to overcome, specially when this is part of the company culture and being proactive in the way described in this article is rewarded by the company.

If you are a manager and you are responsible for goals and expectations, don't assume they will be clear for everyone and make sure they are, explain them over and over again and don't expect people to work towards expectations they don't know they exist.

If you are an IC and you experience this from the receiving end, ask: ask what your manager is expecting of you, ask what are the tasks that you should own and may not be aware of because you're new to the role. As most problems, this one too can be solved by clear communication.