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In organizational behavior and industrial/organizational psychology, proactivity or proactive behavior by individuals refers to anticipatory, change-oriented and self-initiated behavior in situations, particularly in the workplace. Proactive behavior involves acting in advance of a future situation, rather than just reacting. It means taking control and making things happen rather than just adjusting to a situation or waiting for something to happen. Proactive employees generally do not need to be asked to act, nor do they require detailed instructions.
Proactive behavior can be contrasted with other work-related behaviors, such as proficiency, i.e. the fulfillment of predictable requirements of one’s job, or adaptivity, the successful coping with and support of change initiated by others in the organization. In regard to the latter, whereas adaptivity is about responding to change, proactivity is about initiating change.
Proactivity is not restricted to extra role performance behaviors. Employees can be proactive in their prescribed role (e.g. by changing the way they perform a core task to be more efficient). Likewise, behaviors labeled as organizational citizenship behavior (OCB) can be carried out proactively or passively. For example, the altruistic OCB can be proactive in nature (e.g., of offering help to co-workers in anticipation, even before they ask, is an example of a proactive action). Other OCBs concerned with the compliance with rules and expectations might even be incompatible with proactivity.
The use of the word proactive (or pro-active) was limited to the domain of experimental psychology in the 1930s, and used with a different meaning. Oxford English Dictionary (OED) credits Paul Whiteley and Gerald Blankfort, citing their 1933 paper discussing proactive inhibition as the "impairment or retardation of learning or of the remembering of what is learned by effects that remain active from conditions prior to the learning".
In another related meaning, the 1946 book Man's Search for Meaning brought the word to the wider public domain. The author, Austrian existential neuropsychiatrist Dr. Viktor Frankl, used the word to describe a person who took responsibility for his or her life, rather than looking for causes in outside circumstances or other people. Frankl stressed the importance of courage, perseverance, individual responsibility and awareness of the existence of choices, regardless of the situation or context.
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