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Proactiveness and Initiative - 12 November 2013

It’s no longer enough for employees to do just what’s stated on a job description.  In dynamic and ever-changing workplaces, personal initiative is required in order for organisational goals to be met.  Some people will go beyond expectations simply because they’re flexible and committed, but others are the opposite.  So how do you develop such proactive behaviour in those who believe they’re paid to do just what’s expected and nothing more?

That question was examined in a study published in the Journal of Personnel Psychology earlier this year.  In particular, the researchers looked at two specific motivators: getting along and getting ahead.  One of them was found to have a positive impact on proactiveness whereas the other had a negative effect.

Getting along is an interpersonal motivator.  It represents the degree to which employees' behaviour is influenced by the relationships they have with their colleagues.  Leaders who use ‘getting along’ as a motivator usually focus on collaborative activities, team building, and group work.  

But even though ‘getting along’ is effective to a certain extent, it does not lead to people taking initiative.  That’s because those who are motivated by it often perceive proactiveness as a risk to their workplace relationships.  They fear that colleagues and bosses may object to their initiative, resulting in conflict, criticism, sabotage, or ostracism.

Getting ahead is an individual motivator.  It represents the potential for employees to increase their influence and power at work.  This could include the enhancement of their reputation or an expansion of their informal status within the organisation.  It is far more strongly related to the generation of proactiveness. 

Here’s why.  People who are motivated by ‘getting ahead’ are less concerned with whether others are threatened by them.  Their primary concern is simply the furthering of their own status and the attainment of more resources.  These resources include the possibility for a promotion, recognition, more money, autonomy, opportunities, training, awards, bonuses, control, esteem, and so on.

So what does this mean for you as a leader?  Two main things.

First, you have a greater chance of motivating employees to be proactive if you identify those who are driven by ‘getting ahead’.  You then need to articulate the resources they could potentially acquire if they were to be proactive.  The research indicates they will not go beyond expectations if these prospective resources are not made clear.

Second, some employees are high in both ‘getting along’ and ‘getting ahead’.  They’re the ones that demonstrate the greatest propensity for proactiveness.  You just need to make sure that what you’re asking them to do does not jeopardise the bonds they have already established with their colleagues.

In any case, employees lean towards proactiveness when they have a proactive leader to emulate.



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