Culture: proactive or reactive? The choice is yours

Many People Directors and their teams are currently in reactive mode dealing with the fall out of Covid-19. This article looks at why and how driving the return to a proactive culture will be a key focus for future business success and how HR can, and should, be leading this.

Your culture; purpose, values and beliefs shape how your workforce will behave. A proactive culture is a vital vehicle for change, a catalyst for business improvement and a basis for strategic planning. For example, at one end of the proactive scale you have Wimbledon, home of the oldest tennis tournament in the world, who way before Covid-19, had the tremendous foresight to put pandemic insurance in place. At the other end of the scale, there was the hotel company that, within 24 hours of lockdown, sacked 12,000 employees by letter, rendering many of their live-in team members homeless overnight.

Indicators of a proactive culture 
  • Purpose and values and their supporting behaviours are clearly articulated, understood, and – this is the tricky part - embedded across the organisation. 
  • The organisation anticipates and acts before issues arose rather than reacting with surprise when things happen, and then flying into action mode.  
  • Proactive cultures tend to be more strategic in their approach, considering the long term rather than focusing on the immediate needs of the company. 
  • And communication tends to be more effective and transparent because things have been well thought through, plans are clear and cohesive, people have been involved and so understand and support the rationale. 
Proactive, reactive - or both?

Recent events have shown that there’s a need for both, because sometimes the unforeseen can happen, throwing the best-laid plans into a tailspin. Look at the way French luxury goods group LVMH (Louis Vuitton etc.) who in response to Covid-19, immediately suspended production of their perfume/cosmetic gels in favour of manufacturing free hand-sanitiser for hospitals. Many others followed, doing their bit towards helping with the crisis, boosting employee purpose and engagement – and enhancing their organisations’ reputations. 

Conversely, lack of proactivity can mean missed opportunities, replication rather than innovation, inability to handle change, becoming ‘left behind’, lack of continuous improvement, minor issues become major ones all of which can adversely affect productivity, efficiency and the bottom line.

The trick is to strike a balance between dominantly proactive and the ability to be reactive when necessary, recognising what’s needed when. 

 Why it matters now

You might currently feel there’s enough reactive stuff to deal with without thinking about being proactive. However, times of crisis are exactly when proactivity is so important. People need to understand that if the organisation has altered as a result of recent events, what this ‘looks like’. What’s the plan? How will things change? How can they adapt? What support will be needed?  

Leadership is crucial

To have a decent shot at handling change successfully, organisations must create highly engaged leaders at all levels. The middle management layer is critical – it can form your most active conduit, or it can become your greatest barrier. Imagine a team leader who articulates transparently and in a supportive, positive way versus one who is full of doubt and scepticism. Getting leaders ready to lead their teams into the ‘new normal’ is impossible without a proactive approach. If you’re in any doubt, consider the 70% of change activities that fail even in normal times (according to Forbes and others) against a mere 30% that are managed through to success.

The state of workplace wellbeing, for example, was in crisis before the pandemic and this has since reached even more precarious levels. Calls to suicide helplines are up 200%. Almost a third of young adults are reporting feelings of hopelessness (30% of 18-24s v 18% of the overall adult population). Proactive employers, recognising the moral and economic need to take action, are currently rethinking their wellbeing support plans and investing in tools such as Wellbee. Reactive organisations are citing lack of time or resources and pushing the issue of employee wellbeing into the ‘too difficult’ pile. 

Proactive or reactive – the choice is yours. 

It’s all too easy to be consumed by fire-fighting mode. However, by setting aside some time for proactive thinking, the strategic head of people will have taken the all important first step towards driving, stimulating and leading a proactive culture in the workplace.