The potential downside of proactive staff

By David Donaldson

March 26, 2019

Taking the initiative at work can push major change, but what if it’s the wrong change?

Proactive employees can be incredibly useful, driving innovation and making sure things get done.

But they can also be a liability if that energy is not channelled in the right way, according to a paper published in the Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behaviour.

Such proactivity can be disruptive and might even end up costing the organisation money — or you might burn yourself out.

The authors reviewed nearly 100 academic papers on proactivity to identify what made the difference between effective and ineffective proactivity.

“Proactive staff can sometimes initiate the wrong change, such as introducing a quality management system that doesn’t suit their organisation’s need and bringing unnecessary cost with it,” says co-author Dr Lena Wang from RMIT University’s School of Management.

“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 a lurch.”

The researchers identified three key considerations for avoiding some common problems: the relationship between task and strategy, social and relational dynamics, and self-regulation.

Focus on the relationship between task and strategy

The more proactivity fits with the goals of the team or organisation, the more likely it is to be effective.

After all, if your idea doesn’t support the strategy or isn’t adding value to people’s tasks, why are you doing it?

Employees need to consider whether proactivity is needed in the situation and, if it is, what type of change is needed. There is no point introducing some new system simply because someone else is doing it.

Consider social and relational dynamics

The more proactive employees consider their social and relational context, and stay attuned to the characteristics of others, the more likely their proactivity will be effective.

“As obvious as it may sound, many proactive staff do not fully consider how their proactivity affects others,” says study lead author Professor Sharon Parker from Curtin University.

Ask yourself whether you’ve considered others’ views about your ideas. Your idea for a new process might be great, but what about your colleague who’s just spent months working on it?

Force yourself to ask how your supervisor or teammates will react to your planned change. If you don’t, you risk leaving a trail of destruction behind you, regardless of how smart your proposal is.

“Proactivity that is considerate of others’ needs is more likely to be welcomed by others, and thus achieving better outcomes,” Parker says.

Take the time for self-regulation

Effective self-regulation is important to protect your own energy, and to foster persistence and learning.

Some problems are simply not yours to solve: try asking yourself whether you are actually the right person to be proactive given your interest, expertise and resources.

Consider which battles are worth fighting and which are better fought by others: perhaps focus on supporting someone else’s efforts instead? Or maybe the organisation isn’t ready for change yet?

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 your goal effectively and avoid burnout.

And how are you planning to stay on track if things go awry, or defend yourself against project creep?

You need to engage in proactivity you are passionate about, and in ways that will enable you to learn and grow, rather than simply rushing into everything and burning yourself out.

What organisations can do

The researchers also have some ideas about how organisations can improve the situation:

  • Proactive staff should receive training or advice on how to simultaneously consider and balance the above three aspects to ensure they do things wisely.
  • Managers of proactive staff need to be aware of this balancing act, so they can foster and support wise proactivity including strategic thinking and consideration of others.
  • Recruiters should consider the skills of applicants, whom they’ve identified as proactive, in balancing these three aspects.
About the author
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

The essential resource for effective
public sector professionals