Proactive workers are in high demand, and it’s easy to understand why. When it comes to creating positive change, these employees don’t need to be told to take initiative. Research confirms that, compared with their more passive counterparts, proactive people are better performers, contributors, and innovators.
But proactivity can go wrong. Emerging evidence suggests that, if proactivity is not channeled in the right way, it can backfire and have unintended negative consequences for organizations, leaders, team members, and individuals. This dynamic has been labeled the “proactivity paradox”: Proactivity is desired, but only if it conforms exactly to the expectations of the person in charge. For instance, people may initiate the wrong type of change and end up costing their organizations money, or they may have the drive to negotiate a better workload for themselves, but as a result offload tasks onto others. Such proactive “surprises” can upset peers and leaders, and the resulting backlash often harms the initiator.
All this to say, there is a right and a wrong way to be proactive.
In our recent research, we analyzed 95 studies investigating when employee proactivity leads to positive or negative outcomes, and interviewed 25 workers across industries to uncover how to be proactive in ways that maximize success. Based on our analysis, we identified three ingredients that strongly align with psychologist Robert Sternberg’s balance theory of wisdom. The theory argues that wisdom comes from balancing one’s interests with the interests of others and those of broader society. What we define as “wise proactivity,” or the right way to be proactive, thus includes the following three elements.
Managing yourself. Being proactive takes considerable time and energy, so it is important to recognize that some problems are not yours to solve. Taking on too many or too large initiatives can easily lead to burnout.
One of our interviewees, Jane, offers an example. She was working as a consultant at an IT consulting company and thought the organization would benefit from an ISO management system certification. Jane offered to lead a companywide initiative to make it happen, which was no easy feat because resistance was high, including from the general manager. She pushed through and worked long hours for 12 months to get everyone on board. In the end, she succeeded, but was so exhausted that she is now hesitant to be proactive in the future. “It was a good outcome for sure,” she told us, “but I’m not sure it was worth the toll it took on my health.”
Consider which initiatives are worth driving, and before taking one on, ask: Do I have enough personal interest and professional expertise to lead it? Do I have the time and resources to execute it? Allow some initiatives to be led by others. If you do decide to drive one, optimize your time management. Plan for how you will stay on track when setbacks arise, ensure you have support, and defend against project creep by being comfortable saying “no.”
Considering others. Most of the time, the changes you make to your work methods implicate other teams. Yet many proactive employees don’t fully consider how their proactivity might impact others.
Take the case of Vanessa, an HR adviser we interviewed, who recently joined an oil and gas company. After starting her new job, she was mortified to learn that the company was still using manual data entry for employee records. She found it clunky, time-consuming, and irresponsible. In response, she expressed interest in leading the charge on a new system. But the initiative required her colleagues to allocate several hours of their workdays to data imputation on top of their already heavy workloads. Few people were willing to do it, leading Vanessa to abandon the initiative before it was complete.
Vanessa’s story is a perfect demonstration of why it’s so important to consider other people’s perspectives before acting on a new idea. Before you do, ask: Who will be affected by my initiative? Who do I need to onboard to make sure it succeeds? Once you’ve answered these questions, consider how you will communicate your idea to the most important stakeholders and what steps you need to take to prepare them. Without the support of others, you will likely fail, no matter how proactive you are.
“Others” are not limited to peers, however. “Unwise proactivity” can negatively impact the employee-manager relationship as well. Max, a production engineer we spoke with, experienced this himself. He came up with an idea to improve productivity at his former company, a brick-making facility, by enabling the kilns to continue running for longer periods of time. He trialed his idea while his production manager was on leave, and succeeded — achieving a record level of productivity. But upon his return, Max’s manager felt undermined. He attributed the success to luck and undid Max’s changes.
Max’s case is unique because neither Max nor his manager was acting wisely. Though Max failed to consider how his actions would affect his supervisor, his supervisor’s control-oriented approach likely made Max hesitant to share his idea at the outset. If managers subject all new ideas to a lengthy approval process involving too many signoffs, innovations will be stifled before they even begin. Control-oriented approaches reduce the “risk” of proactivity, but they also reduce the proactivity itself. Organizations that want to encourage innovation, therefore, need to create environments of trust, in which their employees feel encouraged to share their ideas. Had Max felt comfortable confiding in his manager beforehand, the initiative might have been successful.
Aligning with organizational goals. If an idea doesn’t align with your key strategy or the larger mission of your organization, it is likely to be a waste of time and resources.
To demonstrate, consider this hypothetical scenario (which is not uncommon in many of the workplaces we researched). Ivan, the head of new product development, attends a networking event and learns that open floor plans are trending. Excited about how this layout might promote collaboration among departments, he persuades his boss to remodel an entire floor of their building. The cost is significant. But, unfortunately, many staff find the new layout rife with problems, namely constant noise and distractions. Many apply to be relocated to a different floor. If Ivan had paid more attention to the tasks his staff carry out day-to-day — work that requires high levels of concentration and focus — he could have more wisely concentrated his efforts on optimizing the original floor plan for productivity.
The lesson? When initiating a new idea, ask yourself if change is needed in the situation and, if so, what type of change is appropriate for that context. Avoid change for change’s sake. Think about how you can implement your ideas effectively given the goals of your organization.
Crucially, it is the balanced combination of the above three elements that makes proactivity truly wise. We can all think of someone who takes proactive steps to benefit themselves but rarely considers the organizational context or the needs of others. This is not wise, and is unlikely to lead to effective outcomes. Likewise, someone who carefully considers others, yet overdoes their proactivity to the point of exhaustion, is not going to be successful either. Wise proactivity, therefore, captures what is at the very heart of wisdom, which is the managing of dialectics, or elements that are often in tension — in this case the balancing of different external and internal interests.
Organizations can help by coaching their employees in how to practice the three elements of wise proactivity in a balanced way. Managers in particular should be trained to model these behaviors and teach their staff to do the same. Recruiters and human resource professionals can help by considering job applicants’ ability to balance these three aspects of wisdom when considering candidates. Behavioral interview questions should focus not merely on understanding if a job candidate is proactive, but also on how wise this person’s proactive actions are. By facilitating wise proactivity, organizations can foster employees who make the right things happen in the right ways.
Sharon K. Parker is an Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow, a Professor of Management at Curtin University, and Director of the Centre for Transformative Work Design. Her research focuses particularly on job and work design and she has published in outlets including Academy of Management Review, and the Annual Review of Psychology on these topics. She is a past AE of the Journal of Applied Psychology and a current AE for the Academy of Management Annals.
Ying (Lena) Wang is a Senior Lecturer at School of Management, RMIT University, Australia. Her research focuses on personality and individual differences, employee proactivity, and diversity management. Her work has been published in journals such as Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior and Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology.