Anything Obscure & Eclectic
Detail from Figure 22, "Symbolical Head Illustrating the Natural Language of the Faculties," from Samuel Wells's "How to Read Character: A New Illustrated Handbook of Phrenology and Physiognomy," 1891.



1. adj. relating to a person, action, policy, etc. Creating or controlling a situation by taking the initiative and anticipating events or problems, rather than reacting to situations after they have occurred. More broadly: innovative, making things happen.

Krusty [a clown]: So he’s proactive, huh?
Network Executive
: Oh, God, yes. We’re talking about a totally outrageous paradigm.
Writer #3
: Excuse me, but “proactive” and “paradigm”? Aren’t these just buzzwords that dumb people use to sound important? [backpedaling] Not that I’m accusing you of anything like that. [pause] I’m fired, aren’t I?
Meyers [a company president]: Oh, yes.

(The Simpsons, Season 8, Episode 4F12, “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show,” 9 February 1997.)

The word in this usage was originally adopted by American psychological theorist and bow tie aficionado Dr. David C. McClelland in his 1951 book Personality, through the fairly numbing observation that “[high achievers] use more future tenses, more generalized or abstract nouns, and more clauses indicating retroactive or proactive relationships.” The word maintained a scientific purview in both psychology and sociology until the mid-1980s, when London’s Financial Times praised management that is able “to be more proactive,” for instance, or Toronto’s Globe and Mail printed an advertisement with the counter-intuitive and grammatically unpleasant call for “the proactive and innovative individual we are looking for.”

An interesting subtext here is proactive’s near-permanent attachment to the workplace, the Simpsons quote notwithstanding. It’s lovely to see these 20th-century kids stay true to their roots: McClelland, the original instigator, was an office-space nut, most noted for his efforts to define what motivates a company’s managers using a model dubbed “motivational needs theory” or “manifest need theory” or his “theory of needs” or just “needs theory.” It seems he was never motivated to settle on a name.

The short, inexpert version is that managers can be motivated by:

  • achievement, seeking mastery in specific tasks whose results are based on effort and feedback.
  • power, hoping to influence, organize, or teach, while placing a high value on discipline.
  • affiliation, maintaining more social aspirations, including the desire to be loved or accepted.

McClelland stipulated, in work that contributed to his earning the American Psychological Association Award for Distinguished Scientific Contributions in 1987, that all people acquire unique degrees of each need group over time and will never fit exclusively into any one category, though the writers of The Office certainly planted David Brent/Michael Scott firmly on the side of affiliation. McClelland’s proposition: that managers in the highest positions of an organization should have a high need for power and a low need for affiliation, as the latter makes bosses overly concerned with how they are viewed by individual members of their team. Noting that the theory allows for change, in that specific needs can be emphasized or adopted through training, rewards systems, etc., the theory remains a cornerstone of courses on business management and organizational behavior.

Does this heady background make proactive a buzzword and front-line functionary in the pursuit of sounding higher-minded? Dunno, but damn if it isn’t at least apropos. Have you read this blog lately?

This entry was published on 3 May 2012 at 5:30 pm. It’s filed under P and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

2 thoughts on “Proactive

  1. Hey, I knew as soon as Crusty was mentioned we were getting a Simpson quote! Ha, only
    from long association with AOE. Love history and etymology of words, mixed in this case with management theory. Am forwarding to many friends who are former managers, etc. thanx.

  2. Pingback: Reading Digest: A Tale of Two Cultural Uses « Dead Homer Society

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