What is Proactive Behaviour and How Can It Help You?

Isn’t it nice to be proactive? The majority of the research on strategy, leadership, and workplace effectiveness support the premise that utilising our people capital by encouraging proactive behaviour can boost performance.

It appears that we also hire people and evaluate their performance based in part on our impressions of their “agility” or proactivity.

Men and women were both more likely to get an interview when their reference letters stressed activity or proactivity rather than socio-emotional behaviours, according to a recent study. 

For nearly 15 years, researchers have been studying proactive behaviour in the workplace.
They discovered that proactive behaviour, at least in the West, 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

Proactive behaviour is second nature to many people. However, many people have difficulty with this type of behaviour.

Perhaps as a result of a set of implicit assumptions about appropriate workplace behaviour that have developed over time as a result of culture, family life, educational experiences, or the cumulative impact of workplaces that are resistant to employee initiative.

People that are proactive want to be heard and have their efforts recognised. They will become demotivated and their production will decrease if they believe their contributions will go unnoticed.

What does this imply in terms of application? If a choice has already been made or if the input will not be used in the decision-making process, don’t encourage proactive behaviour or even input.

Keep an eye on your own actions. Are you willing to engage in proactive behaviour? Do you consider proactive behaviour to be a challenge to your authority, control, or status? How may proactive behaviour be rewarded?

Make your implicit expectations of followers and leaders explicit to help your team realise when proactive behaviour is OK and when it isn’t.

Proactivity is frequently promoted as a means of improving decision-making and performance. It can, however, be a double-edged sword.

Encouraging proactive behaviour in a team while being unintentionally unreceptive to proactive behaviour is a formula for worse performance and productivity.

Proactivity as a goal regulation process

Proactivity has been treated as an ‘action’ in the majority of studies thus far. Typical measures of proactive behaviour, for example, assess specific behaviours and actions such as “speaking out with ideas.”

Scholars have acknowledged (Frese & Fay, 2001; Grant & Ashford, 2007; Parker et al., 2010) that proactivity can be thought of as a goal ‘process’ that incorporates both cognitive and behavioural parts (e.g., imagining, planning).

Parker, Bindl, and Strauss (2010), for example, drew on current self-regulation theory to propose that proactivity contains a goal-generation component (the formulation of a change-oriented goal) and a goal-striving component (the pursuit of that goal) (actions to achieve the goal, including dealing with setbacks and obstacles).

In our most recent paper, Bindl, Parker, et al., (in press) took this idea further and identified 4 elements of proactivity:

  • Envisioning – imagining a different future such as a possible new opportunity that could be acted on, or how to prevent a long-term problem
  • Planning- preparing oneself or others to be proactive, such as discussing possibilities with others, or thinking about steps to take
  • Enacting – actions associated with being proactive
  • Reflecting – monitoring how the proactive actions are going and reflecting on the outcomes

Bindl, Parker et al., in press presented evidence that these 4 elements of proactive goal regulation are distinct, and also they have different antecedents.

We are currently investigating whether proactivity is more ‘successful’ and effective if the goal regulation process is complete, or involves all of the four elements.

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