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Being Proactive Even with Discouraging Managers

Proactivity refers to forward-thinking and self-initiated behavior. Managers can play a large role in their employee’s proactivity. Some can create an environment that fosters proactivity. Others may create an environment that discourages proactivity and independent behavior. These acts may be penalized or unsupported.

Recent research in the Journal of Applied Psychology explored how employees can still be proactive in the workplace, even when their managers discourage such behavior. The researchers hypothesized that employees that aspire to assist others—their work teams or the organization as a whole—will focus more on the reward of helping others by being proactive. They will care less about the consequences of discouraging behavior. 

The researchers conducted various studies to test this hypothesis. They found that those with prosocial motivation (i.e., the desire to help others) engaged in proactivity even in the face of discouraging managers. Further, the researchers found that when managers deterred or did not support proactive behavior (e.g., micro-managing or closely monitoring direct reports), employees with lower levels of prosocial motivation engaged in less proactive behaviors.

The researchers then hypothesized why prosocially motivated employees continued to act proactively in spite of manager disapproval of such behavior. The researchers believed that these individuals feel strong responsibility for creating change and they have high levels of self-efficacy. In other words, they believe that they can make change happen. They tested this hypothesis and found that high levels of prosocial motivation can facilitate both of these things, which can enable them to be proactive despite having deterring managers.

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.