August 25, 2019

When to Take Initiative at Work, and When Not To

By Sharon K. Parker & Ying (Lena) Wang

Proactive workers are in high demand, and it’s easy to understand why. When it comes to creating positive change, these employees don’t need to be told to take initiative. Research confirms that, compared with their more passive counterparts, proactive people are better performers, contributors, and innovators.

But proactivity can go wrong. Emerging evidence suggests that, if proactivity is not channeled in the right way, it can backfire and have unintended negative consequences for organizations, leaders, team members, and individuals. This dynamic has been labeled the “proactivity paradox”: Proactivity is desired, but only if it conforms exactly to the expectations of the person in charge. For instance, people may initiate the wrong type of change and end up costing their organizations money, or they may have the drive to negotiate a better workload for themselves, but as a result offload tasks onto others. Such proactive “surprises” can upset peers and leaders, and the resulting backlash often harms the initiator.

All this to say, there is a right and a wrong way to be proactive.