Proactivity in the workforce: one size, doesn’t fit all

27 September 2017

David Chang, Senior Manager |

Recruitment ads and job specifications commonly use the term ‘proactive self-starter’. But what is it that the employer or recruiter are really looking for? It is often referred to and featured heavily among the descriptors, to the point where the term has become cliché.

At our recent BDO [email protected] event in South Australia, Dr. Ben Searle from Macquarie University presented to our Human Capital clients about what recent research is telling us about proactive behaviour in the workplace and how we can foster it better.

One of the key challenges he spoke about was that ‘proactive’ has become a catch-all term. Unfortunately vague terms often reflect vague thinking, and without some sharper definitions about what being ‘proactive’ means, and what influences it, any attempts to promote it are likely to have vague impact. 

This is where organisational psychology can enable and facilitate workplace behaviour.

Should you screen for proactive employees?

Researchers have been able to break ‘proactive’ down to specific behaviours such as:

  • Anticipating future requirements
  • Taking unprompted positive action
  • Building awareness of key issues and securing support for action.

Some of these can be taught, but studies have also demonstrated that personality traits can make certain people naturally more proactive than others. This means we can selectively screen in people who are more proactive using personality profiling. Great!  Yet, the problem with this approach is that unless you have created an environment where proactive behaviour can thrive, screening new employees may actually have the opposite effect – to the detriment of your organisation. 

Many are guilty of putting too much emphasis on hiring the next ‘change-agent’ to re-energise a team or organisation.  It's easy to discount the need to also work on designing the job role, decision-making authority, team structure and other aspects of the work environment to set them up for success. Unfortunately, without this, people who are more proactive by nature can actually become disruptive. They may even sabotage your organisation if you have promised them the opportunity to make a difference only to then quash their ideas or attempts to make positive changes.

Proactive isn’t a one-size-fits all

The other thing to consider is that while someone may be proactive as an individual contributor, they may not necessarily activate or engage others who they manage on a day to day basis. So, with the best of intentions, if a proactive leader hires in their own image, they may find they have bitten off more than they can chew. 

Do you want your employees to be proactive problem solvers, fixing issues they come across in their day-to-day job? In order to do so, businesses must be willing to build agility, innovation, and facilitate proactive workplace behaviour with organisational psychology tactics. The future will see more businesses adapt and empower employees with real responsibility and freedom to establish a competitive advantage.

BDO’s Human Capital team can work with you to implement, improve or review performance of your people. Contact Scott Way or David Chang for a complimentary 30min consultation to get started. How are you bridging the proactive gap?