Jessica Pryce-Jones

Jessica Pryce-Jones

Happiness at Work

How to think ahead of the game

Being proactive puts you ahead of the game

Posted Nov 19, 2010

‘Ownership', ‘responsibility' and ‘proactivity' are words most of us hear a lot at work, especially if we're involved in project teams. And people who live by these words are a joy to work with because they make their colleagues' lives easier.

Take Catherine in my office. This week I'm in the USA running a series of workshops that inform others about happiness and productivity at work. I'm running four sessions, involving tens of people in different venues and cities. Without being asked, Catherine handed me a file with all the people, venues, numbers, participant details, hotels, flights and transfers that I'd need. She thought it through from the perspective of ‘what might go wrong and how can I help Jess plan for that?'

In the same vein anyone who suggests how to improve on a process that results in efficiency, who does something without being asked twice, who thinks ahead of the game and prepares for it by trying to manage it or to make it better, is a proactive coper. They are trying to make a difference on a daily basis by thinking through the impact and consequences of their actions.

In fact people who don't display these behaviors are frankly a liability in today's working world. Because they need other people to think on their behalf, to manage their ‘to do' lists and to ensure that things get done. In short they drain energy and suck up time.

Performance in today's working world isn't just about getting the job done but it's about self-started, personally owned and future-oriented behavior that doesn't need constant supervision and input. Because that performance is driven by someone who is trying to shape, manage, expand, control and affect what's going on.

Feedback seeking, suggesting improvements, going beyond the narrow limits of a job, taking the initiative to learn, going to meet customers are some of the things you see proactive copers doing. Not only that, they tend to have wide networks, so when things go wrong they have the resources to turn to. Plus they tend to interpret setbacks as providing new direction and avenues to success. So proactive coping is about thinking and doing - how someone deploys their personal resources of effort, time and energy.

Of course it's affect by both trait (who you are) and state (your environment). Some people will always step up and show initiative as you'll know from your experience at work. And there seems to be a clear proactive personality that remains pretty stable over time. You can tell who they are because they say yes to new challenges, and commit themselves to their colleagues, projects and organizations.

Then there's the environment. Of course to be a proactive coper you need the freedom to take decisions and to ask others for input. You need to know you have support to take actions. Freedom to make decisions results in a sense of confidence - as long as you are willing to step up and own what you do. To take responsibility and acknowledge mistakes and failures. Because then you own your success too.

Meanwhile if you want a fantastic story about proactive coping, here's what Bob Cohn, who went on to found Octel, the company that commercialized voice mail, told me when I interviewed him for my book ‘Happiness at work.'

"I was working for the Board of Regents in Florida when I was 19 or 20. Registration of about 35,000 students was to start on Monday and on Friday morning the air-conditioning system failed in the computer center. Now this is Florida. The computer center had been built during the 60s when there were student riots, so they decided that for the computer center this building needed to have bullet proof glass windows, bomb-proof kind of windows, and nothing could open. It was going to take them a month to replace.

My boss goes ‘Well, the project's going to fail'. I said ‘This project can't fail'. And he said ‘How can it not fail, you going to go fix the air-conditioning?' I was always very curious about the way aeroplanes worked and then when the 747 came out I just learned everything about the 747 and it dawned on me, when those big aeroplanes are sitting on the ground in Florida or in the tropics with the sun beating down on them and no windows that open except for the doors, something's got to keep them cool.

So I thought why don't we call some airlines and see if we can borrow one of those trucks and plug it in to the side of this building. And it's Friday. I called all the airlines and they all said no except for one in Miami called Eastern Airlines and I just got to the right guy. I learned that if you tell them the truth and get to the people who make decision, you can actually get somewhere fairly fast.

So I got to this guy and he said ‘Well, are you going to pay for this?' and I said, ‘No, but look you're going to save the state university system millions of dollars to make this project good, and I can guarantee we will give you guys all the credit. I mean there's no point keeping this quiet, it would be fantastic publicity for Eastern Airlines and we would be so appreciative and if you happen to have an extra one you could do without for a while...'

He said ‘Alright son, I'll do this, but there are some problems.' I said, ‘What are the problems?' He said, ‘Well, they're not licensed to drive on the highways and its three hundred miles between here and your place. Somehow we've got to get it to you and these things don't go very fast, they're only made to go around on the tarmac, they maybe go twenty thirty miles an hour max, and then it's not clear, they're not designed to drive for long periods, they're designed to drive for two, three minutes at a time.

‘You've got to get this thing, it's Friday afternoon, you've got to get this licensed to get it on the road' and I said ‘Ok I'll take care of that'. He said ‘And you've got to get it there and they're big wide things that need an escort'.

And he said ‘And then these are only designed to run for fifteen minutes, half hour at a time to keep the airplane at normal centigrade, they're not meant to run for a week. if you run these things constantly for 24 hours a day for a week, it will probably need a complete overhaul at the end. You're going to need 24 hour monitoring of this thing, and they take jet fuel.'

And I'm like, this town does not have jet fuel. Then he said ‘Oh yeah, and one other thing son, these things have a head pressure that will blow you over. So when you hook this up to the side of a building you've got to build a bracket on this building because it's like turning on a garden hose with incredible high pressure.'

Now we had the air-conditioner we had all these other problems to solve. I went to my boss and said ‘I think we've got it'. He said ‘What are you talking about?' I said ‘I think we got it. Here are the problems we've got to solve, and I can get on these things - let's get with it because we could get this thing running by Monday.'

The guy I worked for at the Board of Regents, the administrative head of all the computing centers for all the region, drove over from Tallahassee to see what was going on, and he sees me going through this stuff.... I was up all night long on Friday, he comes in Saturday morning and I'm like this, and he says ‘This is really amazing Bob, I went over to the computer center and there are people just running around doing everything'.

He said ‘You did all this?', and I'm like ‘Yeah', and he said ‘This is really amazing but I want to tell you two things. Whether or not you're here, look outside'... and he points to the sun, ‘That's going to come up tomorrow morning, and that's going to set tonight, no matter what you do. You've put together a really amazing thing, now you've got to just let these guys do their job, don't stand over them, just let them do their job, and they will be so thrilled that they did it, and in the end you've got to tell them that it happened because of them, and each one of them, show them what they did and make sure that each one of these aspects gets the right amount of credit and they'll feel so happy about what they did, because they're doing it for nothing, they're doing it all night long, and there's a great cause here.'

And I thought, that's really true.

And he said, ‘By the way, everybody will know you did this. You don't even have to stand up and take the credit for it, this is the most amazing thing I've ever seen'. And I've remembered all my life that thing that you don't really have to stand up and have to take credit when you've pulled something like this together, you get it anyway. The right people who need it, they know who did it. But people work so hard for a cause they believe in, and when you give them the tools to do it they feel really supported, but their thing gets done and they go ‘yeah I did it.' "

This tells you all you need to know about the positive consequences of being proactive and how it affect other people you work with. Stretching your game will mean they stretch theirs too.

Meanwhile if you want to find out more about what makes you productive and happy at work, visit us at

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