Habit 1: Be Proactive

This is part of a series on the science (if any) behind the ‘7 Habits of Highly Effective People’ from the late Stephen Covey.

This post is about Habit 1: Be Proactive

Stop the press!

When preparing the introduction for this series I had not yet found anything really slamming Coveys ideas.  This week I fell on such an article (McCabe 2011).  Here is a beauty quote from it:

“There is a … considerable body of literature that criticizes the overly simplistic prescriptions and beliefs of the management guru”

McCabe made a point that really got me.  It’s a bit complicated so let me try explain it: Covey is anti-authoritarian in his advice ….. But is more than a little bit of a Hitler himself with his strong assertions of how much is within our control.  So much so, that perhaps, he blames the abuser for the abuse.  Hypocrisy anyone?

But wait …. McCabes article is only a case study and opinion piece (and has only been referenced 15 times).  What I was hoping for is a large piece of well-structured research that seriously put the 7 habits to the (empirical) test.

For now, I feel, we should go cautiously onwards. Ok so let’s get proactive (see what I did there?).

What is proactivity?

Let’s start with Stephen Coveys own take (from his website):

 “Habit 1: Be Proactive is about taking responsibility for your life. You can’t keep blaming everything on your parents or grandparents. Proactive people recognize that they are “response-able.” They don’t blame genetics, circumstances, conditions, or conditioning for their behaviour”

Covey, in his 7 habits book, uses the story of Victor Frankl to bring the idea of proactivity to life.   Frankl was a scholar of psychology who spent time in Nazi death camps, his book ‘Mans Search for Meaning’ is one of the most powerful and confronting things I have ever read.  Covey seemed to feel similar.

What he takes from Frankl and builds into his tool kit of personal and corporate solutions is this:

“Between stimulus and response man [sic] has the freedom to choose”

What is the science of proactivity?

Turns out proactivity is quite a deal in organisation research.  The awesome student I shared a cubicle with during my PhD has even published on the topic and here is something from him and his supervisor:

“It is generally accepted that three key characteristics distinguish proactive behaviour from other types of individual performance:

  • the self-starting nature of the behaviour,
  • that the behaviour is anticipatory and future-focused as opposed to reactive,
  • and that the behaviour is intended to change the situation and/or oneself”

There is lots more published in academic journals on the topic of proactivity, covering; what it is, what causes it, and more.

But how can I get some?

This is where things get tricky.  I have not found the answer in the academic stuff (academics have different drivers to management gurus trying to profit from solutions, which is not always as good as it sounds).

Hence, I went to Uncle Google to see what he could tell me.  I got – nothing of any use – although lots and lots of stuff e.g., be strategic, be accountable, be solution-focused, focus on the future.

Which to me translates to this:

Me: Please Uncle Google, how can I become more proactive?

Uncle Google: You can come more proactive …… by ….being more proactive.

Me: Waaaaaa you suck, I knew mum was right we she said not to believe what you said.

This little episode got me thinking, well maybe you can’t change yourself much and therefore it is potentially misleading to even call it a habit.  Perhaps it is the 7 personality traits of successful people.

Sure, enough when returning to the science literature I find an article on the “proactive personality”.

Which apparently is related to:

  • better salary
  • career satisfaction
  • charismatic leadership
  • entrepreneurial-ness
  • team empowerment
  • team productivity
  • team satisfaction

This is not good news as my understanding is that changing personality is hard, if not near on impossible (despite what management gurus might tell you).   Of course, we do change over time and with our combined life experiences.  However, this is very different to taking a 4-day management course and bam, you have earned yourself a nice shiny certificate, a free pen and a proactive personality.

So what did Covey himself advise on how to get more proactive:

For 30 days ….. make small commitments and keep them, be a light, not a judge, be a model not a critic, be part of the solution not the problem.


Strangely in looking at Habit one: Be proactive, I have looped back to the same question that is bothering me throughout this habits series, namely:

How to make and keep commitments to yourself?

Maybe there will be something in the coming weeks/habits that will help us all.

Meanwhile – what is going on for you and proactivity (or not)?



Yours as ever,

The Wellbeingatwork(nearly)Dr.


Footnotes, References etc.

The 7 Habits:

  1. Be Proactive
  2. Begin with the End in Mind
  3. Put First Things First
  4. Think Win-Win
  5. Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood
  6. Synergize
  7. Sharpen the Saw


Carpini, J., Parker, S., & Griffin, M. (2017). A look back and a leap forward: a review and synthesis of the individual work performance literature. Academy of Management Annals, annals.

Covey, S. R. (2013). The 7 habits of highly effective people: Powerful lessons in personal change: Simon and Schuster.

Frankl, V. E. (1985). Man’s search for meaning: Simon and Schuster.

McCabe, D. (2011). Opening Pandora’s box: The unintended consequences of Stephen Covey’s effectiveness movement. Management learning, 42(2), 183-197.

Thompson, J. A. (2005). Proactive personality and job performance: A social capital perspective. Journal of Applied Psychology, 90(5), 1011-1017.

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