Are You ‘Proactive’ at Work or Just a Jerk?

Photo: Photo: Hunter/Corbis

Ah, “initiative”: a favored buzzword on job applications everywhere. Take a look at and you’ll see it seems that every employer is seeking out new hires who “show initiative” and are “proactive.” But what do these qualities mean in practice, exactly, and how do employees execute them in the workplace? In a series of three studies recently published in the Journal of Managementresearchers from the University of Bonn and Florida State University sought to to find out. Their results suggest that seizing the reins of a given project at work may not, on its own, get you very far — and can easily backfire if you fail to do so in a socially adept manner.

The researchers surveyed a bunch of employees and their supervisors about the former’s tendency to, well, show initiative, as well as how they communicated their plans to their bosses and how their actions were perceived. What they found, in short, was the employees were only rewarded for going the extra mile — I’m going to run out of corporate clichés eventually — when they were careful about picking out the right opportunity to do so (you don’t want to dive headfirst into a project your boss sees as his home turf), and when they exhibited impressive social skills in communicating their plans to others. “A positive atmosphere for proactive behavior only leads to good performance appraisals if the participants demonstrated a high degree of personal initiative as well as social acumen and sensitivity to the right opportunity,” the press release explains.

Whether you choose to interpret this study as supporting a Homer Simpson–esque approach in which you minimize the effort you put into your job is, of course, up to you.