Can Encouraging People to Take Initiative Actually be Harmful?

Can Encouraging People to Take Initiative Actually be Harmful?

Stressed worker cartoon

As organizations face uncertainty and rapid change, taking initiative or being proactive is increasingly encouraged. In the main, being proactive is beneficial for both individual employee performance as well as for organisational performance. There is one circumstance when taking initiative has a negative effect on well-being for employees – when employees are motivated by a sense of pressure and coercion at work (termed controlled motivation) without any sense of interest or identification with their work (termed autonomous motivation). This was demonstrated in a recent article by Karoline Strauss (ESSEC, France), Sharon Parker (UWA, Australia) and Deirdre O’Shea (UL, Ireland), published in the Journal of Vocational Behavior.

Proactivity at work involves self-initiating change or ‘making things happen’. It requires effort and thus drains employees energy, one of the reasons why it is associated with impaired well-being.  This research demonstrated that proactive work behaviour was positively related to job strain when controlled motivation was high and autonomous motivation was also low. Under all other conditions, there was no effect of proactive behaviour on job strain. Thus, proactive behaviour has costs for employee well-being when employees experience a sense of pressure and obligation in their work in the absence of any compensating interest or identification with their work. Under these circumstances, engaging in proactive behaviour is unlikely to be sustainable in the long-term, and it could result in more extreme forms of well-being impairments such as burnout, sickness absence and turnover.

There is increasing pressure on individuals to engage in proactive behaviour in order to meet the expectations of the organization. It would be wise for organisational leaders and managers to take heed of the findings from this research when they consider the expectations on employees to take initiative and be proactive. In order to enable proactive behaviour that does not increase job strain, organizations need to promote high levels of interest and identification with work. One way to promote this is to provide employees with some control over their job and their work tasks. Work redesign to enhance job control might be an important strategy for preventing the incidence of proactivity-induced job strain.

Leadership has the potential to promote autonomous forms of motivation, such as by enhancing employees’ sense of meaningfulness, competence, impact, and choice.

Link to article:

Strauss, K., Parker, S. & O’Shea, D. (2017).  When Does Proactivity Have a Cost? Motivation at Work Moderates the Effects of Proactive Work Behavior on Employee Job Strain. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 100, 15-26.


Dr Deirdre O’Shea
Lecturer at the Kemmy Business School
University of Limerick