Faculty & Research
Faculty & Research
Being proactive at work: How much is down to leadership?
By Andrew An-Chih Wang, Tae-Yeol Kim, Yuan Jiang and Guiyao Tang
Whatever your chosen profession, we operate today in a dynamic and rapidly evolving business landscape. Companies value employees who are proactive in their ability to think ahead, set useful goals for themselves and adapt to situations as they occur. While there is a vast body of research attached to the factors that determine how proactive employees are in general – and the subsequent benefits proactiveness provides for themselves and their employers – little attention has been paid to the how much impact leaders have on prompting proactive goal regulation in their subordinates.
In order to learn more about the role of leaders in prompting goal regulation in subordinates, we surveyed 74 leaders and 371 employees working in R&D departments for three different firms located in Eastern China – two pharmaceutical manufacturers and an IT service company. The results of our study showed that leaders who demonstrate high levels of proactive goal regulation (i.e., the ability to thoughtfully generate feasible plans and act consistently according to these plans to realise ‘better’ or even ‘ideal’ outcomes) are more likely to prompt similar proactive behaviour in the employees under their supervision. They do this by providing a positive example for employees to follow, inspiring them to consider their own ‘ideal outcomes,’ and then generate and follow through with plans to achieve these goals. In this type of environment, employees see behavioural norms that their leader has set, and strive to emulate them.
We also found that this kind of proactive goal regulation example set by leaders directly translates into a positive effect on job performance – in this case, the execution of work tasks with quality, efficiency, and precision. When leaders combine their positional power and resources with their ability to set this kind of example, they create a higher-performing atmosphere. They facilitate a work culture where employees are more likely to be proactive in thinking beyond the set definitions of their job title, take greater psychological ownership of their work, and generally feel more enthusiastic about their work.
Our exploration of proactive goal regulation – a relatively new line of research – opens up a number of important practical considerations for any organisation looking to improve the proactivity and overall job performance levels of its members. Firstly, it is key to note that the encouragement of proactive goal regulation should be targeted at both leaders and employees.
Leaders should be incentivised to become better at ‘leading by example’ when it comes to proactive goal regulation. This could be achieved through a combination of specific training activities and even direct compensation or similar reward schemes. Not only will this encourage employees to follow their leader’s example, this calibre of leader can also compensate for any deficiencies their employees might have in translating their goals into better job performance. With their own proactive goal regulation, leaders can urge employees who lack initiative in goal regulation to craft high-quality, efficient, and error-free performance outcomes.
Equally importantly, employers can encourage proactive goal regulation in their non-leader employees, by creating a work environment where employees feel that they have the discretion to make decisions autonomously, and will be supported by the organisation when they do so. A ‘psychologically safe’ environment, where employees can harness their more proactive instincts without fear of pushback or scepticism, should be the goal. This can be supported by appropriate HR practices and a more general understanding within the organisation that employees will enjoy a high level of decision-making discretion, resources and support, as part of a wider business culture that recognises and rewards proactive goal regulation.
This article is based on a paper entitled “Employee proactive goal regulation and job performance: The role modelling and interacting effects of leader proactive goal regulation” originally published in Human Relations here.
Andrew An-Chih Wang is an Associate Professor of Management at CEIBS. For more on his teaching and research interests, please visit his faculty profile here. Tae-Yeol Kim is a Professor of Management and the Philips Chair in Management at CEIBS. Please visit his faculty profile here. Yuan Jiang is a Full Professor at Harbin Institute of Technology. Guiyao Tang is an Associate Professor at Shandong University.