by Paula on October 8, 2013

PROACTIVE – Forward thinking, planning in advance, preparation.

REACTIVE – Acting after the event, action prompted by specific activity, working with facts.

The words have come up a number of times recently in my work and home life and as such I ask,

“Is one better than the other?” 

“Are people naturally one or the other?”

If you Google “Proactive / Reactive” and look at the images, there is a striking number of strong messages that Proactive is good and Reactive is bad. But is that always the case? In this blog I am looking at a number of situations and the proactive and reactive behaviour that takes place.


Interviews are that difficult time where two adults (or sometimes more) position themselves in an unnatural environment in order to understand as much as possible about the natural traits, work ethics, abilities and attitude of the other. One thing that often comes up is whether a person is Proactive or Reactive. The Googled suggestions would dictate that the best answer here would be Proactive, however the ideal candidate would recognise that a) it should be the situation that defines the action and b) the ability to be both is a positive as a person. To the interviewer it’s about the job. What does the situation need? What does the job need?

An example is a Doctor. A GP’s role needs to be very reactive. They wait for people to come to them with problems and then they work with them to make them better. However, within the actual appointment they have the opportunity to be proactive too giving advice on lifestyle changes in order to avoid this situation again. In this role you need to be able to bring proactivity into a very reactive environment.


Insurance is one of those unusual situations where (as law abiding citizens) we are all proactive. We buy insurance in order to help and support us ‘if’ we have an accident. We do this because it is the law and we are made to. How many of us would do it if we didn’t have to and would think we’d just see what happened and deal with it then? How would things be different?

Health & Safety

This is an area of work where we have obligations to fulfil and yet because the law is less clear, there are those who don’t bother to tick the required boxes believing they will pick up the pieces if and when things go wrong. One may assume that at the stage where there is an issue they will be dealing with clear facts rather than attempting to guess all the potential issues but is this being neglectful towards those who work for us?

Physical Health

How many people do you hear saying that they are proactively managing their health – exercise, good food, living life to the full – because they had a heart attack or a health scare? This is being reactive. We wait until there is an action demonstrating that we were doing things wrong, and this drives us to do things right. Why do we wait? For some waiting is too late. Yet it is the reaction to a situation that drives people – would they really find the inspiration and motivation to do it on their own?


Often the first time a company will call in some help and advice is from Employment Law. They want to understand how they should handle an employee situation that is going wrong. They want to ensure their staff are managing things within the law. This is a very reactive stance. Positive, proactive companies want to have well cared for and well managed staff regardless of what the law says. It is these companies that ensure their managers are equipped to carry out the important role they are promoted into and know how to handle things themselves and for their staff so that naturally they fall within acceptable boundaries of how to treat staff. This is a good example of where positive proactivity reduces the need to be reactive. At the time when reactivity causes action it may be too late…

And so…

Don’t write off being a reactive person as a negative trait. Some situations need patience and thought before actions, and some situations will never happen unless a reaction to a situation triggers a switch that drives action.

Acknowledging and understanding these two different traits will serve you well. Don’t let yourself or a situation be defined by one of them, seek to have both within you and apply them appropriately. Can you think of situations where acting proactively would have avoided a reactionary situation, or times when letting things happen and then acting brought forth opportunities for better learning? How might you have done things differently and what different outcome would that have brought?


Phil Collard October 8, 2013 at 12:17 pm

Absolutely, Paula.

The idea that one is, in some way, “better” than the other always seemed nuts to me.

You can’t possibly live life in a 100% proactive state – how on earth would you deal with things that don’t go as you’d planned them?

Similarly, you can’t constantly be reactive as, without some pro-action, what are you going to react to?

I often think that this kind of thing falls into the category of “people saying things just because they feel they should without really thinking them through” – i.e I’m proactive, me!

Thanks for the blog. :-)

Paula October 8, 2013 at 12:27 pm

Thanks for the comment Phil. So many people recruiting think they want a Proactive person and it’s driven by this constant push of images and quotes like this: As with all things in life the key thing you seek in people is balance and the ability to recognise situations for what they are and apply the approach accordingly.

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