How does Proactive/Reactive relate to the ‘Big Five’?

How does Proactive/Reactive relate to the ‘Big Five’?

As you probably know all too well, the meta program Proactive’ is defined as ‘A preference for acting quickly and taking the initiative’ while ‘Reactive’ is defines as 'A preference for waiting, considering and reflecting before engaging in overt activity.

There is a scientific article by Bateman and Crant (1999), where they describe a type of behaviour they call ‘proactive’, defined as: ‘to intentionally and directly change things in an intended direction’. They also describe the lack of this proactive behaviour, but they do not give it a label.

Taking the initiative
What are the similarities and differences between their definition and  the proactive/reactive distinction in meta programs?

a. Both Bateman and Crant and meta programs highlight taking the initiative as an important aspect of proactivity.

b. Bateman and Crant focus on behaviour, while meta programs focus on mindset (patterns of cognition and experience).

c. In their definition, Bateman and Crant include the result of the behavior: ‘change things for the better’. Meta programs do not assume that proactive behaviour will change things for the better. Proactive behaviour may change things for the worse. Think of someone who quickly lights a fire to get warm and in doing so sets the house on fire.

Several other meta programs mixed in
d. Bateman and Crant include several behaviors under ‘proactivity’ that in terms of meta programs are considered to be expressions of other meta programs:
- ‘Scanning for (…) opportunities’ would be coded in meta programs as ‘Options’, not necessary as 'Proactive'. Someone may scan for opportunities in their mind without ever acting upon them.
- ‘Setting effective change-oriented goals’ would be coded as ‘Towards’ and ‘Change’ in terms of meta programs. Someone may be aware of what they would like to change, without  acting upon those ideas.
-’To do different things or do things differently’ would be coded as an effect of the ‘Change’ or ‘Development’ meta programs.

e. Bateman and Crant seem to strongly favour proactivity over ‘no proactivity’. In meta programs, the opposite of ‘Proactive’ is ‘Reactive’: needing more time and information before starting an activity. Meta programs assume there are advantages to reactivity in many situations, be they private or work related. Proactive spending f.i., may bankrupt a company, which could have been prevented by reactive thinking.

Summarizing: Both Bateman and Crant and meta programs highlight taking the initiative as an important element of proactivity. Differences are: Bateman and Crant focus on behavior, include the result of the action and seem to strongly favour proactivity. Meta programs, in contract, focus on thinking, do not include the result of the action and favour proactivity and reactivity equally. Also Bateman and Crant include many elements in their definition that are covered by meta programs other than ‘Proactive/Reactive’.

And how about the 'Big Five'?
The  'Five-factor model', or 'Big Five model', is a trait oriented typology, based on relationships within descriptors of personality in common language.

It suggests five broad dimensions commonly used to describe the human personality (Saucier and Goldberg, 1996). The five factors are:
1. Openness to experience (inventive/curious vs. consistent/cautious).
2. Conscientiousness (efficient/organised vs. easy-going/careless).
3. Extraversion (outgoing/energetic vs. solitary/reserved).
4. Agreeableness (friendly/compassionate vs. challenging/detached).
5. Neuroticism (sensitive/nervous vs. secure/confident).

Of the Big Five, the ‘Extraversion/Introversion’ factor seems most likely to be related to the ‘Proactive/Reactive’ meta program distinction. This factor is defined as: “The tendency to seek stimulation in the company of others, and talkativeness. Low extraversion causes a reserved, reflective personality. Extroverts draw energy from interacting with others, while introverts get tired from interacting with others and replenish their energy from solitude. People high in extroversion are comfortable with others, gregarious, and prone to action rather than contemplation (Lebowitz, 2016a). People low in extraversion are more likely to speak less, be quiet, introspective, reserved, and thoughtful.”

Extraversion traits in the 'Big Five'
The traits associated with extraversion are:
Sociable
Assertive
Merry
Outgoing
Energetic
Talkative
Articulate
Fun-loving
Affectionate
Friendly
Socially confident

When we compare the proactive and reactive meta programs with the big five conceptualisation of extraversion and introversion, we see the following similarities and differences.

Introspective versus prone to action
a. Both the ‘Extraversion/Introversion’ factor and the ‘Proactive’ and ‘Reactive’ meta programs define Introverted/Reactive as more introspective and thoughtful. Extraverted is seen as less introspective and less thoughtful than introverted, which corresponds with the  Proactive/Reactive distinction in meta programs.

b. Both sets of distinctions see ‘Extraverted/Proactive’ as prone to action rather than contemplation, and consequently ‘Introverted/Reactive’ as prone to contemplation rather than action.
- Both sets of distinctions see Extraverted/Proactive as drawing energy from overtly doing something (interacting with others, in the case of Big Five).

Major difference: meta programs do not focus exclusively on social interaction
c. A major difference is, that the ‘Extraversion/Introversion’ factor is focussed on one single context: social interaction, while the meta programs ‘Proactive’ and ‘Reactive’ may be applied to any context. Opening a door, to give one non-social example, may be done proactively (by immediately turning the handle or even kicking the door in) or reactively (by first thinking about the way the lock works and what might be behind the door).

Again: other meta programs mixed in
d. Another difference is that, when we look at the list of traits that are part of extraversion, there are several traits that would be coded as meta programs other than ‘Proactive’. ‘Sociable’ f.i. would be not be coded as ‘Proactive’ but rather as the meta program ‘People’. ’Friendly’ would be coded as the meta programs ‘Matching plus People’. ’Merry’ would be coded as ‘Matching plus Kinesthetic’. ‘Assertive’ would be coded as ’Proactive plus Activity plus Internally Referenced’. The set of traits that are part of the ‘Extraversion’ factor, makes it much less specific than the meta program ‘Proactive’.

Summarising: Both ‘Extraverted’ and ‘Proactive’ are characterised by being prone to action, and their opposites ‘Introverted’ and ‘Reactive’ as being prone to contemplation. A difference is, that ‘Introversion’ relates to the context of social interaction only, while Proactive/Reactive may apply to any context. A second difference is that ‘Introversion’ contains a broad set of traits that are covered by other meta programs (or meta program combinations) than ‘Proactive/Reactive’.

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About the Author

Jaap Hollander

Jaap Hollander

Psychologist, living in the Netherlands. Founded MindSonar in 1995. Working as a trainer, coach and therapist as well as being director of the IEP, the Institute for Eclectic Psychology. Has written 10 books on NLP and Provocative Coaching. Most recent book: "Provocative Coaching" (English), fall 2012 (Crown House) available from Amazon.

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