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Always a step ahead — Why working proactively makes you happier

Working proactively makes you happier. Photo: AdobeStock/Kenishirotie
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Working proactively makes you happier. Photo: AdobeStock/Kenishirotie

The best way to kill an idea is to take it to a meeting. This slogan — not carved in stone, but embossed in metal — is on the consultation desk, where the editors of this research magazine plan their topics, discuss texts and refine headlines. The inconspicuous metal block urges everyone to appreciate the creativity of the other and not to nip new ideas in the bud, because those ideas originate from people who are ready to be engaged and to participate. The editors call it personal initiative, the specialist calls it proactivity. Work psychologist Doris Fay has taken a closer look at the phenomenon.

Doris Fay is interested in what motivates people to get involved and engage beyond the required level in the workplace and to suggest something new for things that they are actually not responsible for. Doris Fay, who is Professor of Work Psychology, researches the climate in which such behavior thrives and the benefits it may generate — for the individual, the entire team, and not least the company. She thinks, however, that it is naïve to think personal initiative is generally beneficial. “Employees who want to leave the beaten tracks and want to change something often cause stress,” she says. Breaking down old structures and convincing colleagues of one’s own ideas could be very exhausting. Normal processes are disturbed, responsibilities are changed — and this creates unrest. And yet, “research shows that proactivity ultimately has a positive effect on the work performance,” Prof. Fay says, who has repeatedly dealt with this topic since her studies in Gießen.

Experiencing one’s own work as important

In a previous study, she examined the proactivity of 70 people working in geriatric care, a field of work with a high level of personal involvement but also physical and mental overload. Over several consecutive days, the respondents had to provide information via a mini-computer — similar to a smartphone — on whether they had tried something new on that day or advanced a new idea. In addition, saliva samples were taken several times a day that allow measuring the stress hormone cortisol particularly well. With clear results: On days when the subjects were proactive, the cortisol level increased. “Changing things means stress,” says Fay. She describes the contradiction that proactive people still do not stop doing this. They do not stop being proactive despite the stress. “Why do they do this? Are they unable to learn from it?” asks the psychologist provocatively and answers, “Of course not! They do that because they consider their work to be meaningful. They not only want to be pawns on the chessboard of life, but want to feel that they can make a difference. In the interviews, they often said that this was doing them good.”

Is this perhaps typically German? How strong is the cultural background of such an attitude? Prof. Fay made a comparison. Thanks to a German-French research cooperation, 400 employees were interviewed in both countries. “Although France has similar economic conditions, it differs culturally from Germany,” she says. One example is the orientation towards the future. “Our neighbors live more in the here and now, while we Germans always look ahead.” To be proactive is to anticipate something that will come. The experience of being able to bring about meaningful changes in the future is therefore more likely to trigger personal initiative in Germany than in France.

Granting job autonomy

In both cases, working atmosphere and management style play a crucial role: Are proactive colleagues perceived as troublemakers because they break with routines? Do we presume that they have selfish motives? Do superiors find such behavior insubordinate because it is their job to change things? Fay only mentions some of the resentments that people, who are willing to change something, encounter in their working environment. The decisive factor is often the power distance, i.e. the distance between the leader and the led person. “When there is a big distance, I do not know what the boss thinks of my intentions. I can also be wrong,” she says. There are fields of work, for example public authorities or building sites, where clear hierarchies are indispensable. There it is important that everyone follows the stipulated processes. It is different in start-ups. “Personal initiative always develops where people are ‘granted’ a scope for action, are encouraged to try something out and take on responsibility,” Prof. Fay explains. This requires a high degree of qualification, of course. “I have to be able to do my job well and gain the self-confidence that I can change something.” Executives are therefore well advised to promote the self-efficacy of their employees, for example, by giving them challenging tasks and leaving enough creative room for action.

Proactive people manage more

Does too much proactivity lead to self-exploitation and work overload? If you come up with a good idea, you often have the extra work on your own desk. “In fact,” says Fay, “people who show initiative for a long time have to do more in the long term. On the other hand, they learn a lot, establish new contacts, and their work comes easier. Their network expands and their expertise grows. They also accomplish more.” In order to be able to cope and stay healthy, other mechanisms must be used. They are a second focus of work psychology at the University of Potsdam: reducing stress and recovering from stress at work. How do you switch off, get away from work, balance your work with sports, music or friends in your free-time? “The full pot of coffee in the morning is empty in the evening and has to be replenished,” says the psychologist with the professional emphasis of taking care of yourself. It is an encouragement to proactivity. In your own interest.

The project

What hurts today may pay off tomorrow: An integrative perspective on the well-being consequences of proactive behavior at work
Duration: 2017–2020
Funding: German Research Association (DFG) and Agence Nationale de la Recherche (ANR)
Principal investigators: Prof. Doris Fay and Prof. Karoline Strauss (ESSEC Business School Paris)

The researcher

Prof. Dr. Doris Fay studied psychology in Gießen and earned her doctorate at the University of Amsterdam. Since 2007, she has been Professor of Work and Organizational Psychology at the University of Potsdam.
Mail: doris.fayuni-potsdamde

Text: Antje Horn-Conrad
Translation: Susanne Voigt
Published online by: Sabine Schwarz
Contact to the online editorial office: onlineredaktionuni-potsdamde