Proactive versus Reactive Management

We have plenty of time to do things wrong.

By: Tim Bryce – Columnist News Talk Florida

“Beware of your ‘firefighters,’ they are probably your chief arsonists.”
– Bryce’s Law

I have been thinking a lot about micromanagement lately.  It seems the corporate world is consumed with mini-dictators who are bent on directing the activities of others.  I also see this in nonprofit organizations consisting of volunteers and managed by leaders who can be rather ruthless.  Nonetheless, I have also noticed there appears to be an inclination for such managers to be reactive as opposed to proactive in their style of management, and I cannot help but think that micromanagement and reactive management are somehow related.

I have met a lot of reactive managers in my time.  All exhibit the following characteristics:

*  Seldom has time for interoffice planning/organization meetings.

*  Has trouble effectively communicating with the staff, particularly articulating objectives and plans.

*  Not interested in or doesn’t heed input from subordinates.

*  Spends more time supervising than managing.

*  Makes excuses or blames others for problems; never assumes responsibility.

*  Changes priorities on the fly.

*  Rarely, if ever, produces priority lists (keeps it in his/her head).

*  Bipolar – knows great enthusiasms and is easily depressed.

*  Thrives on chaos – sees themselves as saviors. Likes to swoop in and solve problems.

As to this last point, we have encountered situations like this on more than one occasion, but in particular we were contracted by a large insurance company in the Midwest to audit the performance of two systems development groups in the company.  One group appeared to be well organized and managed; they quietly went about their business and delivered their work products on time and within budget.  Another group was just the antithesis of the other; systems were installed prematurely and never to the customer’s satisfaction, and assignments were routinely late and over budget.  Nonetheless, the manager of this latter group was well respected for being able to put out fires at a moment’s notice.

When we finally presented our results to the board of directors, we made the observation that their head firefighter was also the cause of all of the problems he was correcting.  Yet, whereas the manager of the group who quietly produced superior work products was unrecognized, the head firefighter was being amply rewarded for his efforts.  Basically, he was taking advantage of the “squeaky wheel getting the oil” phenomenon.  Frankly, the executives were surprised by our comments and that such a situation had arisen in their company.

There are two reasons for reactive management; either for political gain (as in the insurance example above), or because people simply do not know how to be proactive.  One excuse commonly heard from reactive managers is, “We never have enough time to do things right.”  Translation:  “We have plenty of time to do things wrong.”  True management is hard work, requiring skills in planning, analysis, organization, leadership, and communications.  To some, it is easier to let problems come to them as opposed to trying to anticipate problems and take action before they occur. In other words, they resign themselves to a life of reactive management.

The proactive manager invests his time and money in planning and, consequently, spends less in implementation.  In contrast, the reactive manager regards planning as a waste of time and is content spending an inordinate amount of time in implementation, thereby incurring more costs and, because of the ensuing chaos, needs to micromanage people.

Young people coming into the workforce tend to learn from their managers and emulate their style for years to come.  If they see proactive management, they will believe this is the proper way of conducting business and perpetuate this style, but if they only see reactive management…

This leads me to believe we will be plagued by reactive management for quite some time to come.

Keep the Faith!