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Unfortunately, the developing country in which I reside seems to have a culture of "follow orders unquestioningly", and I rarely see people take proactive steps to solve problems. Instead, it's common for people to simply do nothing and wait for direction if something is not going exactly to plan instead of being proactive about solving the problem. This problem is fairly pervasive from small businesses right up to the government.

I reason that it would be more ideal - better for both a company and its employees - if a company culture of proactive problem solving could be fostered, as the company would become more efficient and thus able to pay its employees more. Moreover, employees would be able to develop problem solving skills that would allow them to advance their careers more quickly.

When dealing with a pre-existing culture of complacency and "pass the buck" mentality, what are some practical and pragmatic methods of beginning the process of changing company culture from reactive to proactive? I have a few ideas in mind but I wouldn't want to bias anyone's thoughts - please share :)

  • IMO, employees become proactive when they feel the sense of obligation towards betterment of the company, which comes without any direct intervention of management, rather long-term policy making and emphasis on employee satisfaction. Apart from that, how interested the employee is in the particular job is also a key. Hiring people who have genuine interest in the industry / work can be focused on. Lastly, let the employees speak up - let them come up with solutions to problems at hand than enforcing management decisions, and later scrutinize / control the workflow from the management. – newbie Jan 29 '14 at 5:34
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If you are at all in a managerial position, then one thing you could do is simply to tell people to be proactive. Don't just say "be proactive", but give them examples of the sort of thing you have in mind.

This may sound like circular reasoning, telling people to be proactive, but I found it to be effective for me personally. I was in an environment where I had assumed that the culture was "do what the supervisor says", and my supervisor told me explicitly that he thought I should be taking my own initiative, and gave me an example of the kind of thing he meant. That was enough; being given permission to take the initiative made me re-evaluate how I was approaching the work and I improved a lot, working suitably proactively.

In my current role, I appreciated that at the hiring stage, the level to which they were expecting someone to be proactive was stated explicitly, otherwise I wouldn't be sure to what extent taking initiative with projects/suggestions would be welcome/frowned upon.

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None of that will change until the employees feel safe that they are more than replaceable cogs in a machine. It's really no different than the military, where having too many people around with a conscience (or real thoughts) can actually impair the mission.

Unfortunately a developing country, where having steady work that keeps one out of poverty is probably more a matter of luck than education or skill, is going to just have this problem.

  • well, i suppose the logical follow-up question is: how would you make employees feel that they are more than replaceable cogs in a machine? – Eva Jan 27 '14 at 23:13
  • 1) pay them VERY well. 2) discourage a culture of finger-pointing. 3) let the company pay for training that is intended for the employees to actually use -- training that empowers them to make better decisions independent of a "boss" always being around. – Xavier J Jan 27 '14 at 23:17
  • i agree that pay is a big part of it, but no company is going to increase salaries by a large amount without seeing some sort of results first, thus my original question about starting steps. what sort of specific ways might you measure and reward proactive work ethic with? – Eva Jan 27 '14 at 23:22
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    It's difficult to measure "proactive-ness". It's like trying to measure how well a team has gelled. All you can do is try to encourage a feeling that doing the job isn't about following a list of instructions but rather of solving whatever problems arise during the 'birth' of whatever it is you're producing. And accept that people will make mistakes. It's easy to empower people who never make mistakes but if you want to truly encourage it you need to let people know you value the journey as much as the result. – Rob Moir Jan 27 '14 at 23:38
  • @RobM - "On a scale of 1-10 with 10 being very proactive" is a measurement that's not difficult to do. Pain measurement in medical studies use a Likert Scale and are a part of the statistical analysis. – user8365 Jan 28 '14 at 18:23
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As someone who spent 6 months in a similar positions in technical roles about 6 yrs back these were my notes

(a) Review how your colleagues in the developed nation have responded to suggestions from the developers in the developing country. Have their responses in the past set the developers you are working with on a path where they prefer to follow rather than question, let alone confront on an obviously wrong decision

(b) Pair a developer in each country. I paired the best developer in the developing country with the best outside. This worked well as the best outside developer was respected and would advocate on behalf of the developer he was working with.

(c) Cultural differences play a major role. One example I recall is developers from developing countries making suggestion and raising objections to suggested implementation details which seeming fall on deaf ears in the developed nations developers. It is the approach of raising an objections, developers in America were raised to accept and give direct critical feedback, developers in the developing country were not, these developers provided indirect feedback, which was construed as a minor concern rather than an objection.

The developer raising the objection invariably felt their feedback was not valued, providing a negative feedback cycle.

(d) Last, but most important, tread lightly. In your desire to help the developers in the developing nation it will be very easy to bruise a few egos of the developers in the developed nation. Finding the right balance will be a skill that you will have to acquire on the go.

I am sure I can dig up more notes but these should serve as a good starting point.

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    I would agree, I work with many developers in India and they do raise objections, they just do it differently than Westerners do and you have to learn to understand what they are saying. – HLGEM Jan 28 '14 at 16:09
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Lead by example.

Foster a culture of pro-activeness. Hire and promote people who are pro-active.

Make it apparent that the company values taking the initiative, perhaps with an email outlining some kind of success that has come from it.

Do some kind of team building exercise, that requires participants to think out side the square, or use common sense.

Eg. Say you have four teams, give them each a problem to solve, and some tools to solve it. But don't give each team all the tools they need. Rather give some of the tools they need to the other teams. See if you can encourage them to borrow the tools they need from the other team.

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Make sure you understand the difference between Delegation and Abdication.

Leaders who delegate properly set the guidelines for what they want, but not the details. Be careful, not all people have the same skill-sets. If you ask a baker for a cherry pie, you probably don't need to mention you would like it from scratch and not a frozen one from the store.

How are you going to handle failure? You're asking people to take a risk who are probably use to being scolded by their parents, teachers and former employers for making mistakes. Do as you're told! Once they try something on their own, everyone is going to watch for your reaction. Be careful with the feedback you give; you could put them off for good.

You get what you reward. It may have to start small. Be on the lookout for the smallest action someone initiates. Acknowledge the person who is the first to get up and help or is the first in the office. Ask for volunteers. Praise can go a long way.

Let them know you do not have all the answers and if you did, you can't be in 10 places at once. Someone else will have to do things without being told. In some cultures, those in charge are very fearful of looking weak for not knowing how to do things or have all the answers. You can't be a dictator and wonder why everyone is standing around waiting for orders.

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Give them some financial stake in the outcome. I say financial as this is developing country and financial incentives are likely to be very welcome.

The simplest way I feel would be to simply give people bonuses where proactive actions benefits the company.

This balances chicken/egg of not paying more till you get results and not getting results until you pay more. Commit the company to paying non regular bonuses.

Of course this system can be gamed like any other - so you have to manage it.

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