The Key to Unlocking Proactivity in the Face of Discouraging Supervisors

Topic(s): leadership, motivation
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology, 2018
Article: Proactivity Despite Discouraging Supervisors: The Powerful Role of Prosocial Motivation
Authors: R.D. Lebel, S.V. Patil
Reviewed by: Jacqueline Marhefka

Proactivity is forward-thinking, self-initiated behavior meant to influence others. It is often related to career or workplace advancement, and supervisors play an important part in determining if employees demonstrate proactive behavior. Supervisors can foster an environment that inspires proactivity in employees. However, they can also discourage proactive and independent behavior by making employees believe that such efforts will be unsupported or penalized. In the face of discouraging supervisor behavior, how can proactivity still take place at work?


The researchers (Lebel & Patil, 2018) expected that employees who aspire to assist others, whether it be the work team or the organization overall, will focus more on the reward of helping others by being proactive. They will focus less on the possible consequences from a discouraging supervisor.

After several studies, the researchers found that prosocial motivation (or the desire to help others) indeed impacted proactivity in the face of discouraging supervisors. When supervisors deterred proactive behavior (e.g., by closely monitoring employees or lacking openness), workers with higher levels of prosocial motivation were still able to act proactively. Meanwhile, employees with lower levels of prosocial motivation had less proactive behavior when faced with deterring supervisors.

What makes prosocially motivated employees act proactively despite supervisors’ seeming disapproval of this behavior? The researchers considered two possibilities: employees’ feelings of responsibility for creating change, and employees’ feelings of self-efficacy—meaning they actually believe they are capable of making change happen. The authors ran another study and confirmed that those with higher levels of prosocial motivation do both of these things. This allows these employees to be proactive even in the presence of deterring supervisors.


Overall, this research shows that employee prosocial motivation can reduce the harmful effect of supervisors who discourage proactivity. Prosocially motivated workers are driven to act proactively due to their sense of responsibility for driving change, as well as their belief that they can create change. They will even act proactively in the face of discouraging supervisors.

The authors propose that hiring employees with more prosocial motivation can inspire proactive behavior. This is particularly the case for organizations with lower levels of trust or support from supervisors. Within the organization, prosocially motivated employees can be spread out among different areas and teams to promote proactivity across the workplace. Additionally, the researchers recommend creating conditions in the workplace that inspire prosocial motivation, such as by increasing employee contact with coworkers or customers who might benefit from proactive behavior.


Lebel, R. D., & Patil, S. V. (2018). Proactivity despite discouraging supervisors: The powerful role of prosocial motivation. Journal of Applied Psychology, 103(7), 724-737.