How to build a proactive workforce: Training problem solvers or strategic change agents?

How to build a proactive workforce: Training problem solvers or strategic change agents?

Organizations are increasingly looking for their employees to be proactive – to show initiative in their work and contribute to positive change. But how can organizations increase proactivity in their workforce? Can employees be trained to be more proactive? ESSEC Prof. Karoline Strauss aims to answer this question in her research. “The short answer is: yes”, she says. “The long answer is that which training approach will be effective – and for which employees – depends on the kind of proactivity an organization is looking for in their workforce. Do you want your employees to be proactive problem solvers, fixing issues they come across in their day-to-day job, or do you want them to be proactive in shaping the long-term future of the organization? Our findings show that a different training approach is needed for these two different types of proactivity”.

The proactivity gap

Employees who take a proactive approach at work – who speak up with suggestions, try to bring about improvements, and take initiative – generally perform better, are more satisfied with their job, and progress more quickly in their career. For organizations, a proactive workforce which anticipates changes and is willing to contribute to innovation is seen as a competitive advantage. So how can organizations encourage employees to be more proactive? 

Previous research has highlighted two potential avenues for organizations wishing to increase the proactivity of their workforce: hiring new human resources with particular personalities and skills sets, or changing the work context, for example by enriching existing employees’ work. However, these strategies often encounter two issues that may block their implementation: the lack of opportunity to hire due to difficult economic or budgetary contexts, and the lack in means and resources to enrich job roles. It therefore falls to training and development to offer a feasible approach to promoting employee proactivity. Indeed, in the United States alone, organizations spent over $165 billion on employee training and development in 2013. But how should training approaches aimed at encouraging proactivity in the workforce be designed? And which training approaches are most effective for employees with different needs and priorities? 

Bridging the gap

Karoline Strauss, together with Sharon K. Parker of the University of Western Australia, decided to carry out research to address these questions. “It was clear to us that the training approach an organization should take would depend on the type of proactivity it is looking for in its employees”, says Prof. Strauss. The researchers suspected that a different training approach would be needed to encourage employees to become proactive in solving problems they encountered in their day-to-day work, or to encourage them to involve themselves in strategic change and become proactive in shaping the future of the organization. The researchers developed two distinct training interventions focused on encouraging these two types of proactivity.    

The researchers then recruited 112 volunteers from a police force in the North of England. The volunteers were randomly allocated to one of the two training approaches, or to a third group that received no training whatsoever. “To test whether the training approaches were effective in promoting proactivity, we compare employees who took part in the training to employees in this third group”, explains Prof. Strauss. “This means that we can rule out that employees throughout the organization became more or less proactive because of other changes that took place during the time of our study”. The researchers then tracked employees over 9 months to see if their proactivity increased. The findings showed that both training approaches were potentially effective in encouraging employees to be more proactive, but that employees’ needs and preferences determined whether the training worked for them. 

It depends: Employee needs and preferences matter for proactivity training

Prof. Strauss’s findings showed that employees faced with a high workload were most likely to respond positively to the training approach aimed at encouraging them to be proactive problem solvers. “These employees felt swamped by the demands they were facing”, states Prof. Strauss. “We succeeded in training them to approach their job in a more proactive way and take charge of challenges and obstacles they were facing”. Training these employees to identify problems in their job and to develop ways to address these problems helped them to find more efficient ways of completing their day-to-day tasks. 

On the other hand, the training approach aimed at encouraging employees to become more proactive in shaping the future of the organization was most effective for those who are generally more focused on long-term rather than short-term benefits. Employees who were more interested in the short-term did not respond to the training approach in the same way – they did not become more proactive. “Our findings really show that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to proactivity training”, explains Prof. Strauss. “For organizations who want to enhance proactivity in their workforce this has two important implications. First, what kind of proactivity do they expect? Do they want employees to become proactive in overcoming obstacles and finding more efficient ways of working, or do they want employees who think about the long-term future and about strategic change at the organization level? Second, organizations need to consider the situation the employee is in. What are the employee’s needs and preferences? Pushing somebody who is generally not very interested in the long-term to contribute to bringing about a vision of the organization in the future is unlikely to be effective in making them more proactive, and our findings suggest that it can even backfire”.  

Expanding the bridge 

Prof. Strauss’s work has been recognized for the strength of its experimental design which rules out alternative explanations for changes in employee proactivity. However, she suggests that more research is needed on the effects of training interventions on employee proactivity. “Our study is an important first step in determining which type of training approach can be effective in encouraging employees to be more proactive, and who is most likely to respond positively to the training. But can we, for example, combine the different training approaches, and are there other ways in which employees and organizations can benefit from proactivity training?” Further research will need to explore these questions in other organizational settings. 


Useful links: 

Other work and publications: 

Strauss, K. & Kelly, C. (in press). An identity-based perspective on proactivity: Future work selves and beyond. In Parker, S. K & Bindl, U. K.  (Eds.) Proactivity at Work. New York: Routledge Organization and Management Series.

Strauss, K., Griffin, M. A., Parker, S. K., & Mason, C. M. (2015). Building and sustaining proactive behaviors: The role of adaptivity and job satisfaction. Journal of Business and Psychology, 30(1), 63-72

Strauss, K., & Parker, S. K. (2014). Effective and sustained proactivity in the workplace: A self-determination theory perspective. In Gagné, M. (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Work Engagement, Motivation, and Self-Determination Theory.New York: Oxford University Press.

Strauss, K., Griffin, M. A., & Parker, S. K. (2012). Future Work Selves: How salient hoped-for identities motivate proactive career behaviors. Journal of Applied Psychology, 97(3), 580 -589.

Parker, S. K., Bindl, U. K., & Strauss, K. (2010). Making things happen: A model of proactive motivation. Journal of Management, 36(4), 827-856.

Strauss, K., Griffin, M. A., & Rafferty, A. E. (2009). Proactivity directed toward the team and organization: The role of leadership, commitment, and role-breadth self-efficacy. British Journal of Management, 20(3), 279-291.

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