Proactive Employees Need Political Skills to Succeed

employees shaking hands
Topic(s): citizenship behavior, culture, performance, personality
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology
Article: Are Proactive Personalities Always Beneficial? Political Skill as a Moderator
Authors: S. Sun, H.I. van Emmerik
Reviewed by: Soner Dumani, M.A.

Employers assume that proactive employees are important for job success. Indeed, past research shows that proactive employees, meaning those who take initiative and champion change, perform better and earn more. However, proactive employees typically push the envelope, control their environment, and bring unexpected changes which may be viewed as threatening and distracting by others. A new study (Sun & van Emmerik, 2014) introduces political skill as a factor that may reduce such concerns.


Politically skillful individuals are good at understanding others and their social environment, monitoring their behavior to influence others, and developing alliances to access resources. They also create good impressions because they are perceived as sincere in what they say and do. According to the researchers, proactive employees need political skills to express their change-oriented thinking in a more socially sensitive and acceptable way. This way, supervisors don’t think that they are challenging the status quo or imposing control based on a hunch.

To test their assertion, the researchers surveyed full time employees and their supervisors from 12 companies in various industries in China. Employees reported their political skills while their supervisors rated the employees on their task performance, helping, and learning behaviors. Results showed that highly proactive employees were rated lower by their supervisors, as long as employees’ political skills were low. However, when employees had high levels of political skill, there was no relationship between proactivity and supervisor ratings. When employees were not politically skilled, it seems that their proactivity was a detriment to themselves.


This new study shows that without high levels of political skill, proactive employees run the risk of receiving negative performance evaluations. Proactive employees who are politically skillful are likely to frame work-related changes as serving the needs of others and garner supervisor support by appearing sincere and influential. This study highlights the importance of developing political skill to be able to identify organizational needs and adopt a socially sensitive approach in bringing change. By having the right amount of political skill, employees can avoid the potential negative influence of their proactive tendencies. From the perspective of employers, proactive employees might seem important, but if these employees aren’t politically savvy as well, employers might find themselves appreciating them less than they expected.

Sun, S. & Emmerik, I.H. (2014). Are Proactive Personalities Always Beneficial? Political Skill as a Moderator. Journal of Applied Psychology, 100(3), 966-975.