“If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door” – Milton Berle
Proactive employees take initiative, expand and craft their jobs, and voice ideas to others in the workplace. In general, employees who take initiative are looked upon positively; however, taking initiative does not always result in better performance or better performance ratings. According to a new study (Wihler, Blickle, Parker Ellen III, Hochwarter, & Ferris, in press), taking initiative is a process that involves both individual and organizational factors, and can result in either high or low ratings of job performance.
Across three separate studies, researchers tested the relationship between initiative taking and job performance, as well as the individual and organizational factors that affect the strength of this relationship. Each of the three studies utilized a survey design, and sampled pairs of employees and their supervisors.
WHO TAKES PERSONAL INITIATIVE IN ORGANIZATIONS?
Both organizational and individual factors influence whether or not an employee will engage in initiative-taking. First, an organization must have a climate that allows employees to take initiative. Such a climate includes a culture for confronting and managing problems as they arise, and the extent to which all employees do more than they are required to do. As a result, an organization with a climate for initiative sets the foundation for employees to engage in proactive work behavior. Yet, even with such a climate in place, not all employees will actually show initiative.
The second factor that influences initiative taking is social astuteness, a form of political skill that involves interpreting people and situations as well as understanding appropriate social interactions. Individuals who demonstrate social astuteness are able to assess a situation and then select appropriate behavior in response to the situation. As a result, socially astute individuals are able to recognize opportunities and act upon them, such as recognizing the chance to take initiative.
Taken together, a climate for initiative is not enough to influence employees to take initiative. Rather, when such a climate exists, employees who are high in social astuteness will be able to recognize the opportunity to display initiative taking, and this combination of both environment and personal factors will result in initiative taking.
HOW DOES PERSONAL INITIATIVE AFFECT JOB PERFORMANCE?
It makes sense that proactive employees would receive favorable performance evaluations. However, managers may perceive employees who take initiative as working outside the scope of their job, and this may lead to feelings of contempt. Thus, engaging in initiative taking, in and of itself, does not always lead to positive performance evaluations.
One factor that influences the relationship between initiative taking and performance ratings is the employees’ level of interpersonal influence, a political skill that involves adapting and adjusting behavior to a specific situation. Individuals who are high in interpersonal influence are able to create more favorable perceptions of themselves by increasing supervisors’ confidence in them.
This means that displaying initiative is not enough to produce favorable performance evaluations. Rather, employees who display initiative and who also exhibit high interpersonal influence receive higher performance evaluations, compared to employees who take initiative but who have low interpersonal influence.
PRACTICAL IMPLICATIONS FOR ORGANIZATIONS
The results from the current study have implications for both employees and organizations. First, organizations that value proactive employees should ensure that their climate supports initiative taking. A climate for initiative taking enables employees to engage in proactive behavior, and in the absence of such a climate, employees may be hesitant to make changes to or expand upon their job requirements.
Second, employees who exhibit initiative-taking may not always be perceived favorably by their supervisors, which has implications for both employees and the entire organization. Specifically, employees may need to consider how their behavior is perceived by others, including the need to decipher when initiative-taking is desired and when it is not. Further, organizations need to consider how supervisor perceptions of initiative-taking can influence employees’ job performance ratings. Organizations should identify whether or not initiative taking is a dimension of desired job performance, and train supervisors to fairly incorporate ratings of initiative taking into the larger performance assessment system as a means to reduce potential biases.