The secret to successful workplace proactivity comes down to 2 key factors

“If organizations want to survive, they need proactive employees who can go above and beyond the call of duty.”

Proactivity concept.
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When business is running smoothly, tasks get completed without managers having to ask employees to complete them. This is the magic of proactivity.

According to Kansas State University psychological sciences professor Wendong Li, what makes proactive employees so valuable is that they make long-term plans, strive to achieve goals, and make things happen as opposed to waiting around. These workplace stars are more likely to earn more money and become leaders, which allows them to change their work environments for the better. So what exactly makes a proactive employee: genetics or environmental factors? The answer, of course, is both.

“It's more like nature and nurture rather than nature versus nurture," Li said in a press release about his work on the topic. “It is the reciprocal relationship between people's dispositions and their work experiences that can make them more or less proactive. In addition to dispositional factors, such as genetic endowments, they also are affected by co-workers, supervisors, and the type of organization and culture of the company where they work.”

To reach his findings, Li looked at genetic data from identical and fraternal twins and found that about 40 percent of the differences among individuals could be attributed to their distinct genetic makeup, while 60 percent of the differences could be attributed to environmental factors. The practical applications of those numbers is that environmental factors more likely determine how much money proactive employees earn, while genetics more likely determine a proactive employee's job satisfaction.

Organizations need proactive employees, especially when facing uncertainty. One immediate thing businesses can do to encourage proactivity is not stand in the way. Li said that when employees find mistakes or inefficient practices, they should be encouraged to proactively think about how to correct it.

“If organizations want to survive, they need proactive employees who can go above and beyond the call of duty to instigate work changes, make long-term plans, and show perseverance to achieve long-term plans,” Li said.

But there’s another important factor when it comes to encouraging workplace proactivity: managers.

The power of empowering leaders

Research published in Frontiers in Psychology found that employees with empowering leaders are more proactive and are instilled with the confidence to tackle tasks beyond their job descriptions. When people trust their leader’s competency, it also boosts “role breadth self-efficacy.”

"When you think your leader is capable, you may view their sharing of power as an opportunity to learn new things," said one of the study's authors, Dr. Yungui Guo of China's Zhoukou Normal University, School of Economic and Management, in a release summarizing the research. "This gives you confidence to go beyond your job description -- which increases your experience and mastery of different skills. In contrast, a low level of trust might make you suspect that delegating power is a way for the leader to shift responsibility. In this case, you may be less willing to take on additional tasks."

The finding was based on a survey of 280 leader-follower dyads at a large state-owned Chinese company that assessed the level of empowering leadership in supervisors, while subordinates were assessed for proactive behavior, trust in leader competence, proactive personality, and role breadth self-efficacy. As well as finding that empowering leaders boost proactivity, the survey also revealed that incompetent managers also encourage proactivity.

"If you view your leader as incompetent, you may prefer to make your own decisions than follow what he or she tells you to do," Guo said. "Therefore, empowered employees with lower levels of trust in leader competency are more likely to seize opportunities to exert more proactive behaviors."

But this raises another question: Is there a limit to proactive behavior? According to two studies, there definitely is.

Don’t be pushy

After conducting three studies involving hundreds of people, psychologists from the University of Bonn and their colleagues from Florida State University found that if proactivity isn’t combined with social acumen, it can make an individual seem like a troublemaker.

“Anyone taking personal initiative should first make certain that one's own activities are also actually desired," said Gerhard Blickle, a professor at the Institute of Psychology at the University of Bonn. “Appropriate identification of favorable opportunities and the ability to adapt to the respective situation are important preconditions for skillfully putting personal initiative behaviors into place.”

This need for proactive people to read the room was confirmed by a Michigan State University researcher, who found that people shouldn’t offer their co-workers help unless asked.

“There’s a lot of stress on productivity in the workplace, and to be a real go-getter and help everyone around you,” said management professor Russell Johnson. “But, it’s not necessarily the best thing when you go out looking for problems and spending time trying to fix them.”

It’s not as if people shouldn’t help others; they should just wait to be asked.

“What we found was that on the helper side, when people engage in proactive help, they often don’t have a clear understanding of recipients’ problems and issues, thus they receive less gratitude for it,” Johnson said. “On the recipient side, if people are constantly coming up to me at work and asking if I want their help, it could have an impact on my esteem and become frustrating. I’m not going to feel inclined to thank the person who tried to help me because I didn’t ask for it. … As someone who wants to help, just sit back and do your own work. That’s when you’ll get the most bang for your buck.”

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