Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences

Proactivity: highly sought-after but not so desirable

Doctoral research highlights paradox of proactivity in the workplace

21 Nov 2019 13:28 | Centre for Applied Research Economics and Management

In theory, proactive behaviour by employees helps an organisation to move forward or protects it from threats and mistakes. However, in reality, a significant proportion of managers are insufficiently open to employees who speak out. Conversely, proactive employees can work more effectively.

This was shown in doctoral research by AUAS lecturer and researcher Maryna Sharygina-Rusthoven, who works at the institution's Amsterdam School of International Business (AMSIB). She obtained her doctorate last Monday with a thesis on the most confronting form of proactivity: ‘voice’. This involves making suggestions for improvements in the organisation or alerting the manager or colleagues. These messages challenge the normal course of events and can be regarded as criticism or ‘extra work’. 

Proactivity is a highly sought-after quality in job vacancies and is considered increasingly important at a time when, according to Sharygina-Rusthoven, companies have to stand out through differentiation and ideas. At the same time, the fact that the environment has a major influence on proactive behaviour remains underemphasised. “The extent to which the manager is open to an alert or improvement is crucial,” says Sharygina-Rusthoven.

If this openness is limited, there can be considerable consequences. “There are many things that affect the core of the company or organisation, which managers fail to notice. If employees do not feel comfortable reporting these things, this will eventually affect the competitive position of the company.”

In her doctoral thesis ‘The Role of Context in Proactive and Voice Behavior’, Sharygina-Rusthoven discusses the interaction between proactivity, the content of the message, the emotional framing (fear or enthusiasm) used to convey the message, the openness of the manager and a safe environment.

Solution 

Sometimes the importance of the message outweighs the fear of negative reactions from colleagues. “The more urgent the message, the less the safety of the environment influences proactive behaviour,” says Sharygina-Rusthoven. If an employee wants to be heard, it is best to accompany his or her message with one or more solutions.

Because, as Sharygina-Rusthoven discovered, when an employee alerts the manager to possible negative outcomes of a decision without coming up with alternative solutions, this undermines the manager’s trust in the employee. According to Sharygina-Rusthoven, managers also have an educating role to play in this. They must indicate how they wish to receive input from employees.

East versus West

Originally from Ukraine, Sharygina-Rusthoven found inspiration for her research in her homeland and the difference in proactive behaviour in the workplace in the Netherlands. The first part of the thesis shows that managers in Ukraine are not approached by their employees with suggestions for improvements or alerts about what might go wrong. Such behaviour is seen as disruptive, resulting in extra work. Employees are afraid of the consequences of proactive behaviour. Proactivity is however viewed as socially acceptable when it’s aimed at maintaining one’s own job.