Apples and the Art of Proactivity

I once read one of those stories that stay with you. It was about a business owner, let’s call her Janine, who was committed to growing and developing her team. Janine employed two new staff, Liz and Alex, both well-qualified, hard-working and keen to be part of the business. After observing them for a year, she promoted Alex to team leader, leaving Liz to continue in her current role.

Liz felt unappreciated and resentful. After brooding for a few days she approached Janine and told her she had decided to resign. Janine asked why and listened carefully as Liz talked about her frustration at the unfairness of being overlooked. Janine thought for a moment and then said, “Before I accept your resignation, can you do me a favour and go across the street to the farmer’s market and find out if anyone is selling apples.” Liz shrugged and disappeared to carry out this unusual errand. A few minutes later she returned and reported dutifully, “Yes, there are apples for sale at the market.”

Janine then called Alex over and asked him to go across the street to the farmer’s market and find out if anyone was selling apples. Alex soon returned and said “Yes, there is a fellow selling apples”. Liz rolled her eyes and thought “What’s the big deal, I have already told her that.” But then Alex continued. “The apple seller's name is Frank Grappas and he has Jonathan apples at $4 a kilo, which he says are his most popular line. I tried one and they are firm and tasty.”

Alex then pulled a note out of his pocket. “He also has a range of organic Pink Lady apples at $5 a kilo if this is of interest, and Granny Smith apples for $3 a kilo, which he said would be great for cooking, and he’s willing to give a discount of 15% on any order over 20 kilos. He is also happy to take orders over the phone and delivers locally for free. Here’s his phone number. Anything else I can do for you?”

Janine said no, thanked him and he left. She then turned to Liz and quietly asked if she still wanted to resign. Blushing with embarrassment Liz replied, “No, I get it. I would like to learn how to be more like that.”

The psychology of wise proactivity

Alex was practicing what psychologists call proactive behaviour, a tendency to take responsibility to actively improve things. Proactive behaviour is characteristic of most high achievers, especially in business. Here's some science to complement this story. In a recent journal article which reviews 95 research studies on pro-activity*, the authors conclude that, while pro-activity has many benefits, it is not always useful as it can be applied clumsily and for the wrong reasons. For instance, when people lack good judgement, try to impress others, or push for their own selfish gains.

In our research at the Franchise Relationships Institute, we have found that franchisees who behave more proactively definitely achieve better financial results. They market their businesses more aggressively and seize opportunities to generate additional sales. However, it can be problematic if a highly proactive franchisee lacks self-control, or behaves in a self-centred manner. I have seen cases of franchisees criticising or bullying franchisor staff when they don’t get their own way, or pushing for changes to the business model because these suit their individual business, without considering the negative implications for the rest of the network.

So while proactivity is a useful attribute for us all to nurture, it needs to be applied wisely. Here are three conclusions from the journal article on what wise proactivity looks like in practice:

1. Consider the broader environment. Will your actions help you achieve your goals? And are they consistent with the organisation’s strategic objectives, as well as other initiatives that may be in place? Don’t make rash, thoughtless or impulsive decisions.

2. Consider other people. Is your approach consistent with the organisation's culture, and are you likely to get others offside or onside. If you are deliberately being provocative to initiate a change, be sure you have the power or support base to pull this off.

3. Consider your intent. Are you genuinely trying to improve things, contribute to the greater good, or develop new knowledge and skills? Or are you motivated by power plays, trying to impress others, or prove yourself?

In today’s disrupted business environment we need to be proactive to stay relevant. And we all want proactive people on our teams who will go that little bit extra to make thoughtful changes and improvements to our businesses. But we also need to ensure we are self-aware, and give others adequate coaching and guidance to apply their proactivity wisely.


* Sharon K. Parker, et al. A Review of Factors That Influence the Individual Outcomes of Proactive Behavior. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior. 2019. 6:221-48.

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