What is Proactivity

Someone once observed: "There are three kinds of people: those who make things happen, those who watch what happens, and those who wonder what happened".... Proactive behavior refers to the first kind of person - those who make things happen. Many scholars believe that everyone has the potential to be the kind of person who makes things happen. That is, everyone can display more or less proactive behavior, depending on their motivation in the situation.

Three examples of proactive behavior include:
  • A nurse who, whilst waiting for the doctor to arrive to see a patient, anticipates and prepares the equipment and information that the doctor might need, enabling the doctor to do her job much more effectively and rapidly
  • A production operator who has, on his own initiative, come up with a way of cleaning his machines that reduces water wastage.
  • A new management consultant who initiated meetings with her colleagues to seek feedback regarding how to improve her future performance. Without waiting to be asked or instructed, the individuals in the above scenarios have used their initiative to change the present situation in light of anticipated future demands and needs.

Defining features of proactivity

Because it is a relatively new field, the precise definition of proactive behavior has been somewhat unclear and even contentious. Nevertheless, in recent times, there appears a consensus appears to be emerging as to the definition of proactive behavior, as suggested in Parker & Collins (2010). Dictionary definitions typically highlight two key elements of proactivity. 

First, they identify an anticipatory element involving acting in advance of a future situation, such as acting in anticipation of future problems, needs, or changes (Miriam Webster Online Dictionary). 

Second, definitions emphasize taking control and causing change, for example: "controlling a situation by causing something to happen rather than waiting to respond to it after it happens" (WordNet® 2.0 Princeton University, 2003). 

Both of these elements - anticipation and taking control - are present in most conceptualizations of general proactive behavior. For example: 

  • Crant (2000, p.436) referred to proactive behavior as "taking initiative in improving current circumstances; it involves challenging the status quo rather than passively adapting present conditions". 
  • Parker, Williams & Turner (2006, p. 636) defined proactive behavior as "self-initiated and future-oriented action that aims to change and improve the situation or oneself"
  • Grant, & Ashford (2008, p. 13) defined proactive behavior as "anticipatory action that employees take to impact themselves and/or their environments". 

As well as anticipation and taking control, definitions of proactive behavior also often highlight its self-starting nature. Thus, Frese and Fay (2001) suggested personal initiative involves going beyond assigned tasks, developing one's own goals, and attempting to solve problems that have not yet occurred. Likewise Grant and Ashford (2007) argued that proactivity can include doing things before being asked, inventing new means, and/or negotiating new ends. Importantly, self-initiation is essential to both taking control and being anticipatory. For example, if one needs to be asked to change something, it is not taking control of the situation. Likewise, if someone is told to do something because of an impending need, then they would not be acting in anticipation, but rather, they would be following a direction. 

In summary, proactive behavior has three key features: 

1. It is anticipatory - it involves acting in advance of a future situation, rather than just reacting. For example, the nurse in the example has thought ahead to anticipate the doctor's needs. 

2. It is change-oriented - being proactive means taking control and causing something to happen, rather than just adapting to a situation or waiting for something to happen. The production operator has caused a change in the way machines are changed. 

3. It is self-initiated - the individual does not need to be asked to act, nor do they require detailed instructions. For example, the new management consultant in the example has not waited to be given feedback, but has proactively sought it out.

Additional elements have been included in the definition of some forms of proactive behaviors. For example, Frese and Fay (2001) included persistence as a defining element of personal initiative. Being proactive can involve persistence, such as persevering to bring about change, but persistence per se is not always proactive (e.g., one might be persistent at asking a supervisor for help). Being constructive and/or prosocial is also sometimes highlighted as a feature of proactive behavior (e.g., taking charge is defined as constructive efforts to effect functional change in how work is executed), but too much, or misguided, proactive behavior can also be dysfunctional and counter-productive (Bateman & Crant, 1993). 

Proactive behavior compared to other types of work performance

Within the domains that it has been investigated, proactive behavior has been shown to be distinct from related behaviors. For example, in the area of work performance, Griffin, et al., (2007) showed that proactive behavior is distinct from task performance (which they referred to as proficiency), distinct from citizenship & contextual performance, and distinct from adaptive performance. These authors proposed a model of work role performance that distinguishes proactivity, adaptivity, as well as proficiency. 

  1. The first type of performance, termed "proficiency", describes the extent to which an individual meets role requirements that can be formalized. It is possible to assess proficiency when the requirements of a work role are formalized because there is a clear standard against which these judgments can be made. 
  2. The second type of performance, "adaptivity", describes the extent to which an individual adapts to changes in a work system or work roles. 
  3. The third type of performance, "proactivity", describes the extent to which the individual takes self-directed action to anticipate or initiate change in the work system or work roles. 

Adaptivity and proactivity are important whenever a work context involves uncertainty and some aspects of work roles that cannot be formalized. It is important to note that the above perspective is different to the idea that proactive behaviour should be seen as a type of contextual performance or as a type of extra-role behaviour. For example, some have argued that proactive behaviors is by definition extra-role, since in-role activities are non-discretionary and hence not self-directed. However, classifications of in-role and extra-role are unclear, and depend on how employees construe the boundary of their role (Morrison, 1994). Proactive individuals are likely to construe their roles more broadly (Parker et al., 1997) and to redefine their roles to encapsulate new tasks and goals (Frese & Fay, 2001). 

We suggest that a more useful way of understanding proactivity is in terms of a dimension that is distinct from in-role and extra-role behavior (and the related dimension of task and contextual performance). Instead, consistent with others (Crant; 2000; Grant & Ashford, 2007; Griffin, Neal, & Parker, 2007), we suggest that all types of performance - whether they are defined as task, conceptual, citizenship, in-role or extra-role - can be carried out more or less proactively. For example, one can help individuals in a reactive way, such as by responding to requests for help, but one can also help others proactively, by anticipating their needs. 

Proactivity as a goal regulation process

Most research thus far has treated proactivity as an 'action'. For example, typical measures of proactive behavior assess particular behaviors and actions like 'speaking out with ideas'. However, it has been recognized by scholars (Frese & Fay, 2001; Grant & Ashford, 2007; Parker et al., 2010) that proactivity is usefully considered as a goal 'process' that includes cognitive elements (e.g., envisioning, planning) as well as behavioral elements.

As an example, Parker, Bindl & Strauss (2010) drew on existing self-regulation theory to propose that proactivity includes a goal-generation component (the setting of a change-oriented goal) and a goal-striving component (actions to achieve the goal, including dealing with set backs and obstacles). 

In our most recent paper, Bindl, Parker, et al., (in press) took this idea further and identified 4 elements of proactivity:

  • Envisioning - imagining a different future such as a possible new opportunity that could be acted on, or how to prevent a long-term problem
  • Planning- preparing oneself or others to be proactive, such as discussing possibilities with others, or thinking about steps to take
  • Enacting - actions associated with being proactive
  • Reflecting - monitoring how the proactive actions are going and reflecting on the outcomes

Bindl, Parker et al., in press presented evidence that these 4 elements of proactive goal regulation are distinct, and also they they have different antecedents.

We are currently investigating whether proactivity is more 'successful' and effective if the goal regulation process is complete, or involves all of the four elements.

Next: Why Proactivity is Important