Most organisations say they value proactive employees, but there is ‘wise’ and ‘unwise’ proactivity, and HR has a big role to play in discerning the difference.
If you want to help your organisation be as receptive to proactive employees as it may claim to be, consider the findings of a recent review of the best international research into the subject. It says there are two types of workplace proactivity – wise and unwise – and broadly speaking, three types of reasons for that.
The review, When Is Proactivity Wise? A Review of Factors That Influence the Individual Outcomes of Proactive Behaviour, is the work of Professor Sharon Parker, director of Curtin University’s Centre for Transformative Work Design; Dr Lena Wang, from RMIT University’s School of Management; and Jenny Liao, who was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Western Australia at the time of the review.
“One of HR’s agendas is to be more strategic,” says Parker. “One of the ways it can do that is by building staff capabilities, and a critical capability is proactivity. By that, I mean the sort of behaviour where people have new ideas or take charge of situations, and make things happen.”
Parker says being more innovative is crucial in today’s hypercompetitive world. “If you’re in a complex work situation which is dynamic and changing, the old-fashioned idea that it’s enough to have managers who can figure out exactly what everyone should do, and get them to do it, is just not supported by the evidence.
“If HR managers are able to foster the capability to be proactive through designing good HR systems and practices, they have greater potential to make a difference to the bottom line of an organisation. And that includes how HR people look at how they themselves can be more effectively proactive.”
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The authors of the review, which was published recently in the Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, scoured the scientific world for more than 1300 articles on proactivity. They then culled them down to 95 that dealt specifically with how individuals (not teams) have been proactive in the work context. To ensure only high-quality research was included, the articles had to have been published in top-tier international journals in the fields of organisational behaviour/psychology and management.
The review defines proactivity as “self-initiated and future-focused action to change oneself or a situation”. It says an employee can be proactive across one or more of many different, sometimes interrelated domains, such as improving local work processes, voice, personal initiative, actively seeking feedback, problem prevention, entering into a new work situation or changing their job. Parker explains that ‘voice’ in this context means “speaking out with ideas and recommendations as opposed to just complaining”.
The crux of the matter is that proactivity isn’t automatically a good thing. It can go wrong.
“The same proactive staff who are highly valued for driving innovation and generally getting things done can easily become a liability,” says Parker. “Proactive staff can sometimes initiate the wrong change, such as introducing a quality management system that doesn’t suit their organisation’s needs and bringing unnecessary cost with it.
“We saw examples of proactive staff negotiating a better workload for themselves, only to offload tasks onto their peers. Or proactive staff taking on too many new projects, then burning out and leaving the team in the lurch.”
The review’s authors identified three broad categories of factors that promoted or diminished the effectiveness of proactive behaviour: task and strategic considerations, social and relational considerations, and self-regulatory considerations. In conjunction with these, they identified ways to avoid the common traps.
1. Task and strategy
Employees need to consider the relationship between their tasks and the strategy of the organisation when being proactive.
If it doesn’t support the strategy or isn’t adding value to people’s tasks, why take on the task? Is proactivity really needed in the situation and, if so, what type of change is needed? “They might be trying to copy what someone is doing elsewhere, but it’s not appropriate given the strategy goals of their own organisation,” says Parker.
2. Social and relational dynamics
Secondly, proactive staff should be taught to consider the positions of key stakeholders.
“As obvious as it may sound, many proactive staff don’t fully consider how their proactivity affects others,” says Parker.
Parker offers an example from one of the people spoken to for the report. A young engineer went to work for a brick-making company and had an idea for speeding up the kilns. The general manager said it sounded risky, but gave him permission to try it with 10 of the cars the bricks were packed in. The engineer really wanted to prove his idea so he tried it in 60. The bricks all stuck together, setting back production by a week. When asked what he thought went wrong, he said he rushed in and failed to listen to a manager who had a lot more experience.
“People go ahead and try to make something happen without thinking about who it’s going to impact and how to bring those people on the journey. If you don’t, you risk leaving a trail of destruction, regardless of how smart the changes you want to make are. That’s probably the most common way proactivity goes wrong,” says Parker.
Thirdly, staff should spend time and energy managing their own feelings and interests. Some problems are simply not theirs to solve, given their interests, expertise and resources.
Again, Parker has an example of this from the report. A woman in a company who was trying to achieve ISO management system certification thought it would fail the audit because insufficient processes were in place. She went to the CEO, offering to get them introduced, invite the auditors in early and do a trial run. She had to get everyone on board, and the GM was resistant. In the end she succeeded with the initiative and everyone was congratulatory, but she was burnt out by the whole process and it made her very hesitant about being proactive in the future.
Consider which battles are worth fighting and which are better fought by others, then perhaps focus on supporting them instead.
If you are going to charge on ahead, how can you make sure you are working smarter and not just harder? Optimise your time to achieve the proactive goal effectively and avoid burnout. Plan for how you will stay on track if things go awry and defend yourself against project creep.
HR has a role to play around all forms of wise proactivity, says Parker.
“One of the problems is that organisations say they want proactivity and innovation, but they don’t want anyone to get it wrong because it causes problems. Then they put in too many controls to avoid any risks. ‘If you have an idea, submit a 10-page proposal.’ People have to jump through hoop after hoop, and proactivity is killed off.”
HR can foster proactivity by creating a different culture, she says. “It can design systems whereby people know the organisation’s strategy and budget position. They have a good understanding of who the competitors are and what’s happening in the marketplace. HR can help make sure the devolving of information throughout the whole organisation is actually happening.”
HR can counter the second type of unwise proactivity by fostering a positive teamwork culture where people talk to each other and take account of other people’s views and opinions, she says.
“Then HR should, of course, care about burnout. Unfortunately, we’re seeing something of an epidemic of mental health issues in the workplace. HR should be setting good policies around mental health, ranging from making sure you have supervisors who can detect if someone is getting overworked and stressed, through to making sure the work hours and expectations are reasonable.
“In contrast, in an aggressive organisation where everyone is working long hours, or there’s a bullying culture or whatever, it probably means people aren’t going to put extra pressure on themselves by being proactive in the first place.”
This is an edited version of an article originally published in the June 2019 edition of HRM magazine.