Taking Charge (In The Face Of Uncertainty): How Proactive Coping Can Help Entrepreneurs Succeed Being proactive means investing in your future, putting in a bit more effort upfront, so that any problems that do occur will have less impact, leaving you and your business able to survive and thrive.
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There is a new buzzphrase floating around the internet that you may have seen- it's called "toxic positivity." It is the idea that there is too much pressure to be optimistic about absolutely everything all the time, to the point where it feels like it will do us more harm than good. An example would be looking out of your window, and seeing that your garden is full of weeds.
"Toxic positivity" advice will tell you that you should say a positive mantra every day when you wake up to help solve the problem. I can save you some time here, and tell you that this won't work. The weeds will keep growing, because optimism alone doesn't make good things happen, or ward off bad events. Whilst I absolutely believe that a positive outlook can be an asset when facing many of life's problems, I also recognize that it is not a magic superpower that works without any other intervention. It takes a little practical effort on our part -and also a realistic expectation- that life and business has many uncertainties, and rather than trying to wish them away, we need to look for ways to cope with them.
Interestingly, a 2022 study by the University of Amsterdam's Judith Langerak and her colleagues supports this idea. The Dutch report looked at the difference between two coping strategies, one in which participants of the study reacted to events, and another in which they were proactive and tried to anticipate and mitigate them. The study involved 266 Dutch employees, all from a wide range of employment sectors, including employees and entrepreneurs. The participants answered weekly prompts related to their job insecurity experiences, and were assessed as to whether their coping strategies were proactive or reactive.
Which group fared better?
Well, the proactive group did fare best in the end; however it wasn't a black-and-white case that getting ahead of problems always helped people get better results. In fact, the study's authors realized that strategies that revolved around making plans for the future took some time to produce positive benefits. Furthermore, sometimes, these strategies actually produced pain in the short term. That doesn't sound ideal, but it makes sense if you think about it. Imagine that you were planning a business trip. A strategy that coped reactively to problems would be one in which you simply hoped that everything was going to turn out alright, and did no pre planning at all. However, if your flight got cancelled, or the meeting place turned out to be double-booked, then you would be forced to react to deal with the problem. This would mean a stress-free start to the trip, but potentially a lot of stress if and when a problem occurred.
On the other hand, a proactive approach, otherwise known as old-fashioned planning, would include a bit more stress up front. Maybe phoning to double-check bookings, or having a plan B in case something went wrong. So, how can entrepreneurs implement proactive coping strategies? One way is to pay attention to the language that you use. Take the example of demands placed on your time. We all know how easily a well-planned day can get out of hand when your phone starts filling up with instant messages, and someone always needs a "quick" word with you.
Add just one extra unexpected Zoom meeting on top, and your productivity can be seriously derailed. Or rather, it can be derailed if you react to those pulls on your time. Does that message that just popped up really have to be answered right away? Should you stop what you are doing to answer the "quick" question from your employee right now, or deal with it later? If you chose to react, you might find yourself doing the tasks and losing a lot of time, or using phrases such as "I'm sorry, I can't right now."
Many people will choose the reactive method, because it contains two temptations. One is that it feels productive. After all, if you respond to a lot of messages, and answer some queries from your employees, you can feel like you have achieved something. However, we should remember, there's a big difference between "getting stuff done," and actually making progress. The second temptation is that reacting feels like we are dealing with something urgent. However, we need to remember that there is big difference between a task that is urgent, and a task that is important. Important tasks are the ones that are aligned with our long-term goals and help the company grow. Urgent tasks are things that need doing right now. Falling prey to reactivity means that we get stuck in a feeling of urgency.
It also means that we feel we are being pulled by external forces, which can make us feel like we are not in control; something or someone else is. The solution is to flip to a proactive strategy where we focus on what is important, not what is urgent. So, back to language. Let's take a look at a proactive way that we can cope with requests on our time, so that we don't get stuck in reacting, and then wondering where our day went. What we need to do is to say "no" to these tasks in a different way. To do this, try incorporating the following phrases into your vocabulary:
• "I don't respond to emails after 8pm. "
• "I don't reply to instant messages when I am out of the office"
• "I don't deal with queries while I am working on…"
Notice that we are using "I don't." This is a much better alternative to "I can't," "I won't be able to," or "I am sorry that it's not possible this time."
This is because using "I don't + verb" is an example of the present simple tense. We use this tense for habitual actions. Therefore, it means that I regularly don't do this. It is my habit. Not only are you saying no to the task you are being asked to do right now, you are also saying no to similar things ahead of time. By telling people in advance what your working habits are, you are much more likely to avoid having to react to potentially time-sucking activities. There is another reason why this choice of phrase is beneficial.
The phrases "I can't" or "I won't" can be interpreted as negative and personal, but saying "I don't" keeps things general, and, therefore, more polite. If you want to work out some more workplace situations in which you can use proactively coping, spend some time engaging in "scenario thinking." This is where you project out the possibilities for a situation that might develop. What things might interrupt you in your work tomorrow? And what "I don't"-type phrases might you be able to come up with to explain to those around you what working habits serve you best?
The great advantage here is that once you have told people what your working habits are, you will not have to keep saying "no" in the future. Thinking ahead about scenarios that could affect us might not seem like the most optimistic activity, but it is a great way of taking charge in the face of uncertainty. Business can be unpredictable, and we need to find a way to move forward despite this. Being proactive means investing in your future, putting in a bit more effort upfront, so that any problems that do occur will have less impact, leaving you and your business able to survive and thrive.