Proactivity in the workplace a “double-edged sword”

by Michael Mata20 Oct 2016

While most organisational leaders want their employees to be proactive and suggest new ways of improving work processes, new research by Andreas Wihler and Gerhard Blickle from the University of Bonn highlights how proactivity can sometimes be a double-edged sword.

When delivered the right way at the right time, being proactive can appear helpful. However, when the same suggestions are delivered the wrong way at the wrong time, it can appear annoying or even obnoxious.

The study, entitled Personal Initiative and Job Performance Evaluations, examined the vital role political skills play in opportunity recognition and capitalisation. In three samples, the researchers asked a total of 1,235 employees, their supervisors, and their co-workers to fill out a survey. The responses were then linked to job performance evaluations conducted by the supervisors.

Employees, co-workers, and supervisors rated the extent to which their organisations were open to displays of proactivity. Additionally, the subjects completed self-assessments about their own levels of initiative-taking and political skill.

Whether proactivity was perceived as being helpful or brazen hinged on the employees’ political skills. Andrew Wefald, associate professor at the Staley School of Leadership Studies in Kansas State University, defines political skill as the ability to build connections, foster trust, and influence other people.

Those with greater political skills were more accurate in their perception of how much their organisations valued proactivity. In contrast, employees with lower political skills were essentially blind to the opportunities that came their way, no matter how many cues their organisations offered about how proactivity would be rewarded. More worryingly, employees with poorly developed political skills were more likely to be proactive when their organisations didn’t favour it.

The researchers admitted that being proactive in the workplace can be a risky endeavour. When done right, employees would be rewarded; when done incorrectly, it would lead to punitive measures. Employees with better political skills received more favourable performance evaluations from supervisors when they engaged in proactive behaviour. In contrast, employees with less developed political skills received worse performance evaluations from their supervisors when they engaged in proactive behaviour.

Organisational leaders shouldn’t assume that all of their employees will know how to deliver suggestions the right way at the right time. Employees lacking in political skills should be allowed to build key interpersonal skills first before wielding the double-edged sword.

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