Employees who are willing to do just a bit more than what they are asked isn’t something that happens automatically. It is mainly the organisation that determines whether employees are 'proactive’, says PhD graduate Renske van Geffen.
When Van Geffen sets out to explain exactly what a proactive employee is about, she starts by talking about the porter of the Agnietenkapel – the place where PhD students from the University of Amsterdam (UvA) defend their thesis in order to obtain their doctoral degree: ‘So this porter has decided for himself that it is his task to calm down stressed PhD students. He greets them and says: ‘Make sure you enjoy it.’ He also receives parents and grandparents and connects with people. I know that this is how he always performs at PhD ceremonies. Formally, as a porter, he does not have to do his job in this way.’
Van Geffen has developed a keen eye for anything work-related and how employees can work together to achieve good performance. ‘A healthy working environment is important’, says Van Geffen. ‘Healthy work is not sufficiently stimulated and valued in our societies. This is evident, for example, from the way companies use technology. Usually, the aim of technology is to reduce costs, but it should be used much more often to give people the opportunity to do what they can do well and to bring out the best out in them.’
As an example, Van Geffen mentions supermarkets, which are increasingly switching to ‘self-paying’. ‘This is fine if it removes work that is not necessarily inspiring. But it would be good if the redundant employees were then deployed to help customers in the store. However, this does not happen. On balance, the customers' shopping experience becomes less satisfactory.’ Van Geffen witnesses this development in quite a few industries: in healthcare, in the manufacturing industry and in service environments such as restaurants.
Van Geffen graduated from Tilburg University with a bachelor’s degree in Personeelswetenschappen (Human Resource Management), a study that she describes as relating to ‘everything that has to do with work’. It is a combination of psychology, sociology, economy and labour law and is part of social sciences. Subsequently, Van Geffen took a two-year research master in Social Behavioral Sciences in Tilburg. In 2012, she started her PhD at the UvA’s Amsterdam Business School (ABS).
‘During my bachelor, it seemed like a natural choice to start a career in human resources’, says Van Geffen. ‘I always thought that I would be an HR manager at a multinational, and I did a six-month internship at Philips. That thought has now completely gone. Multinationals can be very ponderous. Philips was a very innovative company once, but I worked in an environment that was being reorganized. During this process, they did not get the best out of people.’ She now teaches at the Hogeschool van Amsterdam and trains PhD students in Delft to tackle problems in setting up their research.
Van Geffen’s research shows that proactivity can occur in environments where at least three conditions are met. The first is ‘self-efficacy’ on the part of the employee. ‘This is not a general trust in yourself, but the confidence that you have certain skills.’ Autonomy plays a major role, too. ‘If everything within the organization is fixed and employees have little room to manoeuvre, no proactivity will occur.’ Finally, it comes down to leadership. The interaction between a manager and an employee has a huge effect on the level of proactivity adopted by these employees.
This clearly shows that proactivity is mainly determined by how people work together. ‘The degree of self-efficacy largely depends on how others deal with you. This also applies to autonomy, which is about how much space you get from others. And, of course, leadership is by definition a form of cooperation.’ According to Van Geffen, this means that proactivity is not the same as creativity. ‘Everyone is creative to some extent, but the question is whether and how ideas are translated into action. An organization has a major influence on this, including whether these actions are successful.’ The opposite of the proactive employee is the ‘reactive’ employee, someone who only responds to external stimuli. ‘Nowadays, I see everything from the cooperation perspective’, Van Geffen says.
Defining the conditions for proactivity is not enough. ‘Organisations have to select managers with a certain degree of self-efficacy, and the ability to stimulate this among their employees. Insecure leaders usually react negatively to new ideas.’ According to Van Geffen, managers have a lot of influence on the work situation. ‘When a manager gets in your way, you should simply leave the company. Fighting this is fighting a losing battle, is what many scientists say.’ Secondly, teams as a whole are more proactive when the various views within the team are used and openly discussed. ‘The more people bring along different visions, the better it is for the proactivity of people and teams. Unfortunately, the opposite can also be the case.’
If it were up to Van Geffen, companies would be more aware of the value of their employees and the importance of healthy cooperation. ‘In almost every job ad, companies are looking for people with a ‘proactive attitude to work’. Apparently, the assumption is that if you hire many proactive people, the outcome will automatically be positive.’ According to Van Geffen, the questions are if people, without proper guidance and structures allowing cooperation, will remain proactive and if their proactivity will be useful. ‘Such a company places the responsibility entirely on the employee. That is incorrect, because it is mainly the organization that can make people proactive.’