As communications and control systems become overwhelmingly digital, it is essential for workers to develop skills which can cope with modern demands. It’s just one of the ways in which modern employees are expected to demonstrate a proactive work, future-orientated mentality. There’s a growing expectation that an appetite for knowledge is essential in order to be ready for the unknown.
Employees carry an immense load of responsibility, pressure and expectation. But, contrary to popular belief, being proactive isn’t always applauded. Poorly handled by the wrong leader, those with bright ideas might become reluctant to share them. It’s a terrible threat to business success, and to that person’s future valiant efforts.
As oxymoronic — and odd— as it sounds, unproductive proactivity is a real problem.
The downside of employee proactive behaviour
Collaborative research paper, “A Social Capital Theory of Career Success” (2001), found that proactivity was deemed as a positive thing in business.
However, there was a specific type of proactive behaviour which was found to be negative. Speaking out — to voice a suggestion, concern or suggest an area of improvement — when it was not required, nor warranted, it seems is rather unpopular.
The study found that employees who spoke out, unsolicited “received fewer promotions and lower salaries than those who voiced few concerns”.
Seibert and his colleagues’ theory was reinforced in further research published in the Journal of Management (2014). The various subsequent studies share a similar theme; that personal initiative is best when delivered with a decent level of political skill.
In short, being tactful with your pro-action is essential in order for proactive behaviour to be seen as an asset.
Both studies found that for employees to be praised for proactive acts, relationships between leaders and colleagues had to be in place. It seems that hard work and commitment can be misconstrued as irritating interfering if you’re not ‘in’.
With this in mind, it’s important that all employees feel they have a space to speak out. Otherwise, your business might well risk missing out on some valuable insight.
The Initiative Paradox
Leaders tend to reward outstanding employees with a promotion or a new opportunity, and then expect their continued initiative. Some employees are hesitant to appear overly forthcoming, fearful of stepping on their bosses’ toes with their revolutionary ideas.
It can be irritating for employers who then feel they must continue to oversee the day-to-day running of the business. In turn, the ambitious worker can become disgruntled from being micromanaged. This environment generates an initiative paradox, with all parties wary of undermining the other with their proactive behaviour, and instead become frustrated and turn on each other.
How to avoid the downside of proactive staff
- Keep open the lines of communication. It means that staff have the opportunity to voice their suggestions, and a response can be appropriately managed. This will help people to understand your expectations, and the needs of the business.
- Provide training. Not everyone has the ability to be tactful, but poorly delivered advice can lead to resentment, no matter how useful. Some training on difficult conversations could help.
- Team building exercises will help colleagues to better understand each other, and the way that they operate.
- If the situation gets out of control, an honest chat with someone might be needed. Before it gets to that stage though, maybe an ‘innovation chain of command’ could help inter-employee relationships, at least.