If I had a dollar for every time my managers used the word “proactive” in an evaluation, well, I’d have a lot more money than I do now.
The problem with this word is that, while it has a definite meaning, its use is vague enough that if your manager feels like giving you a bad review, they can just say you “aren’t proactive enough.” Even if you do more than what is assigned to you, even if you anticipate future problems and take the necessary steps to avoid them, you can still be told you “aren’t proactive enough.” It’s a catchall word for people to use when they need a reason to yell at someone who hasn’t really done anything wrong. It’s great because there’s no defense against it.
Consider this scenario:
Manager: “Your performance is sufficient, but you need to be more proactive.”
You: “I appreciate the feedback.”
Over the next few weeks/months, you proactively demonstrate all sorts of new, innovative ideas. You proactively write a script that catches a certain kind of error before it’s introduced to the system. You discover that some additional work needs to be done to clean up some issues from a project that just went live, and not only do you proactively bring this up to your manager, but you also proactively present your analysis and volunteer to head up the team that is going to be working on it. You’re a proactive machine.
Then your next review comes:
Manager: “Well, the main issue I have is that you haven’t been being proactive enough.”
You: “Are you serious? Not only did I successfully completely everything that was assigned to me, but I also proactively wrote that error catching script, identified errors that were missed by the testing team, did the analysis to fix the issue, and headed up the team that was in charge of implementing the updates. All proactively, all ahead of schedule, and all without being told.”
Manager: “Yes, but you weren’t being proactive enough. So I have to give you ‘below expectations’ on your review.”
You: “I am proactively managing my career by accepting an offer from another company who has offered me more. Later.”