What is Proactive Behaviour?

Being proactive is good, right?  Most of the available literature on strategy, leadership and effectiveness in the workplace supports the idea that leveraging our human capital, by encouraging them to behave in a proactive way can improve performance.

It looks as if we also recruit people and make performance judgements based at least in part on our perceptions of their “agentiveness” or proactivity.  A recent study found that both men and women were more likely to get an interview when their reference letters emphasized activity or proactivity rather than socio-emotional behaviours.

Researchers have been looking at proactive behaviour in the workplace for almost 15 years.  They have found that, at least in the West, proactive behaviour consists of the following (Grant, Gino, and Hofmann, p. 535):

Taking charge.  Includes behaviours such as:

  • Try to bring about improved procedures for the work unit
  • Try to correct a faulty procedure or practice
  • Try to implement solutions to pressing organizational problems

Voice.  Includes behaviours such as:

  • Speak up with ideas for new projects or changes in procedures
  • Communicate opinions about work issues to others, even if their opinions differ or others disagree
  • Develop and make recommendations concerning issues that affect this store

Upward influence, which includes behaviours such as:

  1. Discuss production issues with the store leaders
  2. Discuss work issues with the store leader

For many people, proactive behaviour is second nature. But many struggle with this type of behaviour.  Perhaps due to a set of implicit beliefs about the appropriate behaviour in the workplace, created through culture, family life, educational experience or the cumulative impact of workplaces not receptive to employee proactivity.

Proactive people want to be heard, want their contributions acknowledged.  If they feel that their contributions will fall on deaf ears, they will be de-motivated and their productivity will suffer.

What does this mean in practice?  Don’t encourage proactive behaviour or even input, if a decision has already been made, or if the input is not going to be part of the decision-making process.

Monitor your own behaviour.  Are you receptive to proactive behaviour?  Do you see proactive behaviour as a threat to your control, authority or status? How do you reward proactive behaviour?  Try to make your implicit expectations of followers and leaders explicit,  to help your team understand when to engage in proactive behaviour, and when it might not be welcome.

Proactivity is something that is commonly touted as a route to improved decision-making and performance.  Yet it can be a two-edged sword.  Encouraging a team to behave proactively, but unconsciously being unreceptive to proactive behaviour is a recipe for decreased performance and productivity.

Source: Grant, Adam, Gino, Franchesca, and Hofmann, David. “Reversing the Extraverted Leadership Advantage: The Role of Employee Proactivity”.  The Academy of Management Journal. Vo. 54. No.3 June 2011. p. 528 – 550.

16 replies »

  1. I have a team member who is very proactive, but as you say this can be a double edged sword. The feedback he gives sometimes isn’t well received – by myself or by others, possibly because he speaks the truth but doesn’t understand that things can’t be changed quickly it takes time and priorities needs to shift. You say “help your team understand when to engage in proactive behaviour, and when it might not be welcome.”, do you have any advice on how I can do this.

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