The graphic below represents a classic framework for diagnosing and improving organization climate, culture and performance. It spells out the characteristics of four different orientations and their characteristics. The article in which it appears, while over 30 years old, still provides solid advice about moving an organizational system from the Reactive stage through Responsive and Proactive stages to the High-Performing stage. If you can’t find a copy of the book that contains this article in your library, online used bookstores usually have copies at a very reasonable price if you search for Transforming-Work-Second-Edition.
While the Reactive orientation certainly seems like the worst of a public sector bureaucracy, I’ve also seen many private sector and non-profit organizations with these characteristics. These are organizations driven by crises and fear. A clear symptom of this orientation are repeated references to the past (e.g., “We’ve always done it this way” or “We tried that and it didn’t work”). These organizations are terrible places to work and as such lose talented employees and have difficulty attracting new ones. The predominant question people ask is, “What’s best for me?” because in such a toxic environment everyone is looking out for themselves.
The Responsive orientation represents an organization operating adequately but one that is easily overwhelmed by changing events and conditions because it is focused on the present only and hasn’t considered possible future challenges and opportunities. The question most often asked is, “What’s best for our team?”, a framing that often ignores one team’s impacts on other teams in the organization.
The Proactive orientation is future-focused, actively anticipating challenges and opportunities in its environment and developing plans to address them before they arise. The central question of an organization with this orientation is , “What’s best for our organization?” Many organizations with this orientation are quite successful but can still be disrupted by opportunities and challenges, not because they were unanticipated, but because the response to them was too slow or inadequate in other ways.
The High Performance orientation may seem idealized, but many of us have worked in or with such organizations. They are high energy, inspirational, have exceptional leadership and bring out the best in everyone. They are not just adjusting to anticipated opportunities and challenges — they are actively creating their futures. The central question asked in these organizations is, “What’s best for our organization’s culture?”
To summarize, the central feature distinguishing these four orientations is their orientation to time:
- Reactive systems are focused almost exclusively on the past and are activated only after challenges (incidents, grievances, lawsuits, high attrition, declining revenues, rising costs, etc.) and opportunities (new markets, new technology, new revenue options, etc.) have presented themselves.
- Responsive systems are engaged as soon as challenges and opportunities first begin to appear (though that might not provide enough time or planning for an adequate response).
- Proactive systems operate in anticipation of future challenges and opportunities, driven by information about likely futures and actively shaping responses prior to them being needed.
- High-performing systems are value-driven organizations with empowering leadership, that actively transform challenges and create opportunities.
Another less obvious use for this framework is to use it to assess leadership and management styles of individuals and groups. In my experience, the leadership and management orientation of those heading organizations is usually consistent with the orientation of their organizations. Why? Because organizational culture is typically created and maintained by leader behavior. As a consequence, improving a reactive or responsive culture also means changing the leader’s behavior and also that of the senior leadership team. Or changing the leaders.
So…what leadership orientation is most common for you? And what would you like it to be?