The word proactive sometimes also written pro-active was used by the Austrian existential neuropsychiatrist Dr. Viktor Emil Frankl, in his 1946 book Man's Search for Meaning 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.
Much of this theory was formed in Nazi concentration camps where Frankl lost his wife, mother, father and family, but decided that even under the worst circumstances, people can make and find meaning.
According to the New Oxford American Dictionary the origin of the word proactive is from the 1930's. Merriam Webster lists the date as 1933.
Alain Paul Martin observed that Frankl's original idea was gradually reduced to a binary opposition between the reactive (wrong and bad) and the proactive (right and good) options. Restricting choice solely to the reactive and proactive options can impede the freedom of choice and risk to severely hamper innovation.
Borrowing from medicine, Frankl and Sun Tzu, Alain Paul Martin defined Harvard University Global System, a decision-making framework to increase awareness of the freedom of choice. The horizontal dimension comprises four interventions: (a) Laissez-faire, (b) Focus on Relationship (symptomatic intervention in medicine such as a pain killer), (c) Focus on Substance or Problem Solving (etiologic intervention in medicine such as an antibiotic injection to cure bacteria), or (d) Focus on a Hybrid Intervention integrating both the substantive and the relational choices (oral antibiotics sweetened for children). For each of these four interventions, four generic and ethical groups of options can be explored namely:
After introducing the framework to decision makers in business and governments throughout the 1970s, Alain P. Martin defined the above four options in his first published book in 1983 titled « Think Proactive: New Insights into Decision-Making » He also worked with the intelligence community and defense establishments applying the proactive decision-making framework in project management and risk assessment. Alain Martin stresses the importance of exploring all generic choices including the proactive options. However, it is not always prudent to be proactive with all stakeholders in every situation. There are instances where it is best to adopt the current practices, do the minimum to get by, or merely wait and see. A. P. Martin warns decision-makers that trying to be proactive with everyone is the best recipe for a pacemaker!
In 1989, the term proactive was further popularized in the business press in Stephen Covey's 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Though he used the word in Frankl's original sense, the word has come to mean "to act before a situation becomes a source of confrontation or crisis" vs. after the fact.
Since the term "proactive" is a recent neologism, it is frequently misunderstood and contrasted to "reactive" or "passive". It also tends to have a higher power of connotation.
In behavioral medicine, proactive often refers to a treatment approach where a therapist initiates contacts as opposed to reactive where the responsibility for contacts with the therapist is entirely on the client e.g. proactive and reactive quitlines for tobacco or alcohol.
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