Conversations: Taking the Reins

Most employers say they want proactive employees, but speaking up comes with a risk

There’s a particular phrase that turns up quite often in job postings: among a litany of basic tasks and duties, many prospective employees are expected to “show initiative.” Of course, this can mean any number of things. When you see a process that could be improved, you might propose a change. When something isn’t working well, you might brainstorm a solution. If you have a ground-breaking new idea, you might go ahead and lay it out in a pretty PowerPoint presentation, a wordy proposal or a compelling monologue.

Being proactive sounds like an exemplary way of working, but in practice there is more to it than job postings imply. To show initiative at work depends on a deeper understanding of politics and people. It means the employee must grasp why things operate as they do and discern intuitively how to best go about changing them. After all, to suggest change is to risk being perceived as impertinent or incompetent. 

Andreas Wihler, a postdoc at the University of Bonn in Germany, has been researching the impacts of proactive behaviour in the workplace since 2011. His conclusion? Being proactive is not as simple as it sounds.

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