Most people want to be more proactive in their lives — whether that’s on the job, in their relationships or with their health. But many will tell you it’s difficult to put this into practice.
With the increase of remote workers, proactive workers and overall employee productivity has been a concern. But with fewer office distractions, breaks and sick days that were once a part of a regular office employee’s day, some companies have found that productivity has actually increased.
Despite the many business challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the amount of employee output per hour of work increased by an annual rate of 3.8% in 2020. This is more than double the average 1.4% annual increase recorded for 2005 through 2019.
What is a proactive worker?
A proactive worker is an employee who thinks ahead. When a problem arises, proactive people look for solutions right away instead of waiting for direction. They always strive for the best possible outcome and put extra thought and effort into each task they complete. If they have any downtime, proactive employees search for additional opportunities to use their knowledge and skills to benefit the organization.
Characteristics of proactive employees
Forward-thinking: A proactive worker plans ahead. They’re always thinking about what they can do to keep things running smoothly, such as keeping a running to-do list or taking a few minutes at the end of each day to get things organized for the next morning.
Independent: Proactive employees are highly independent. They complete assigned tasks, help their colleagues and look for other opportunities to use their skills, all without any micromanagement.
Action-oriented: Proactive employees avoid procrastination. Instead of waiting until the last minute, they start new assignments right away and often finish their work early.
Engaged: A proactive worker feels a strong connection to the organization and the work they do. They strive to reach company goals and happily pitch in to help colleagues when needed.
Detail-oriented: A detail-oriented employee pays close attention to everything. They often notice errors before anyone else does, preventing minor mistakes from turning into major problems.
Well-informed: Proactive employees understand how their roles affect everyone else on the team. They also think carefully about business problems and pursue solutions that are likely to benefit the organization.
Intrinsically motivated: A proactive employee tends to have high levels of intrinsic motivation. Instead of looking for external validation, they motivate themselves by setting goals and taking satisfaction in a job well done.
Timely: This type of employee is quick to address work-related problems. They also show up to work on time and respond to emails quickly, ensuring colleagues have the information they need to move forward on critical projects.
Benefits of a proactive workplace
Proactive employees are self-motivated, innovative problem solvers and seek out opportunities. When people feel trusted and supported at work, it not only gets results but also leads to increased engagement and productivity.
Encouraging employees to be proactive at work benefits your people and your business. Proactive employees can lead to higher productivity and efficiency. Research shows that, “Proactivity drives performance and innovation of teams and organizations and boosts individuals’ well-being and careers. When individuals are proactive, they use their initiative at work to bring about a better future.”
9 ways managers can motivate employees to be proactive
Proactive behavior starts with effective management. It’s up to managers to create a positive outlook and ensure employees have the tools and support they need to be proactive. There are many ways to inspire proactive behavior, but here are some of the most effective.
1. Create a culture of trust and empowerment
When people feel autonomous and empowered with creative freedom in the workplace, it leads to a culture of trust and empowerment. Give employees the freedom to decide how and when to work on each task, and you’ll see job satisfaction and productivity rise in turn. Give them the opportunity to come up with original ideas and act on them, and they’ll experience an increased sense of competence and engagement and engage in more proactive thinking.
Be sure to offer guidance and support whenever needed to help employees be more responsible and more confident in their decision-making skills. If someone suggests a great solution, ask them to run with it — and make sure to recognize their efforts, regardless of success or failure. The right level of support helps employees develop their abilities, increase their independence and ultimately become more proactive. It also contributes to a culture of trust among employees and their managers.
2. Prompt employees with challenges
In some organizations, engagement declines because high-achieving employees no longer feel challenged by their work. Once they master their job duties, they run out of opportunities to develop new skills or work on exciting projects. To increase engagement and encourage proactive behavior, challenge employees as often as possible. You don’t want to overload them with work, just challenge them enough to provide mental stimulation and increase engagement. These challenges reinforce positive behaviors and help successful employees develop new skills.
Think about an important issue in your company — maybe it’s reducing healthcare costs or increasing sales. Instead of brainstorming ideas in a conference room, open the floor to employees through an Idea Challenge. Be transparent about the issue and explain what needs to be achieved. Reward the top five ideas, implement the best one and provide recognition for the finalists by sharing with leadership or via communication with the entire company.
3. Encourage flexibility and wellness
Offering a high level of flexibility helps employees maintain their well-being, making it easier for them to be productive at work. If employees are burned out, they’re less likely to be proactive, which may interfere with your organization’s ability to reach its goals. Promoting flexibility and wellness is essential for helping employees achieve a good work/life balance and avoiding the lack of engagement associated with burnout.
Flexible work schedules are particularly impactful for improving wellness. Let’s be honest — you can try to help employees with work/life balance by offering something like a time management workshop, but what most employees need is simply more time. Especially now, a 9-to-5 day may not be optimal for everyone, and some people are more productive working from home. When you focus on results and empower employees to work the way they need to, that trust and freedom allow them to be much more proactive at work.
Healthy employees are engaged, productive — and yes, proactive. But that means being just as proactive when it comes to their health. When employees feel they have higher well-being, they’re more likely to be engaged in their work and feel supported by their organization. From leading by example to mindfulness breaks, these tips can help you encourage well-being in the workplace.
4. Implement a “Solutions Only” policy
Being proactive is habit #1 in Steven Covey’s international bestseller, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. In Covey’s words, it means taking responsibility and being solution-minded. To encourage employees to be proactive, implement a “solutions only” policy. Complaining about work and filing formal complaints may help employees vent their frustrations, but they’re not productive or proactive.
Even if an employee doesn’t know the exact solution to a problem, they should be prepared to discuss the issue with other team members and take an active role in the brainstorming process. Actively avoiding problem-solving goes against the whole notion of being proactive, so a “solutions only” policy is an effective way to encourage a proactive mindset.
5. Reward proactive behaviors
Employees watch their managers carefully to see what type of behavior is rewarded and what type of behavior is discouraged. If you want employees to repeat specific behaviors, you need to reward those behaviors accordingly. Recognition goes a long way toward motivating employees to be proactive. When you encourage people to keep up their best efforts and continue with healthy behaviors in and out of the workplace, employees feel empowered.
You don’t have to spend a lot of money to reward employees for desirable behavior, either. You can simply call attention to team wins and celebrate each team member’s achievements. If you want to do something more formal, have an employee recognition lunch or print out certificates of achievement for employees to hang in their work areas.
6. Provide constant support and encouragement
Recognizing employees isn’t the only way to encourage proactive behavior. You can also incentivize team members by providing constant support and encouragement. Receiving support from a manager or supervisor goes a long way, but so does access to more formal types of support, such as employee assistance programs, training opportunities and effective HR policies.
Even when employees make mistakes or fall short of expectations, give them the opportunity to improve and support them through their professional development. Employees will feel more empowered to be independent if they feel secure at work and believe their managers provide the right level of support. With this constant support, they’re more likely to try new things or take an active role in finding solutions to complex business problems.
7. Communicate expectations clearly and directly
It’s not fair to expect team members to read your mind or guess what you want them to do. Being direct about your expectations and providing constructive feedback when needed allows employees to adjust their behavior and be more proactive. Make sure your expectations are specific, realistic and relevant to each employee’s role in the company.
If an employee isn’t displaying the proactive behavior you expect, sit down and have a direct conversation. Explain that the employee has all the knowledge and skills they need to tackle problems without much hands-on supervision. Outside of these conversations, make sure you’re serving as a good role model for employees. It’s tough to develop proactive behaviors if your manager is often late for work, frequently misses deadlines or doesn’t plan ahead.
8. Prioritize professional development for employees
Encouraging employees to set goals is one of the best ways to promote proactive behavior in the workplace. That’s why it’s so important to support employees in setting and meeting their own goals. When an employee comes to you with a question, view it as an opportunity for development. Instead of providing the answer and sending the employee on their way, ask them to think it through on their own. Over time, employees will get into the habit of trying their own solutions before reaching out for help with work-related problems.
Encouraging independent thinking also gives employees opportunities to learn new skills. If you embrace this approach to management, employees will appreciate your efforts to help them grow. They’ll also feel incentivized to be more proactive. Just be careful not to engage in micromanaging. If employees believe you don’t trust them or don’t have confidence in their skills, they’re likely to be less proactive, which is the opposite of what you want.
9. Lead by example
As noted earlier, it’s important to lead by example. Many employees look to their managers for cues on how to behave in professional situations. If you don’t engage in proactive behavior, team members may start to believe your company doesn’t value proactive thinking. Arriving at work on time, planning ahead for future projects and demonstrating a high level of engagement are good ways to model appropriate behavior.
It’s also important to maintain a positive attitude. Instead of complaining about work or blaming other departments for work-related problems, adopt a “solutions only” approach. Work closely with team members to identify feasible solutions and implement them throughout the company. Being a good team player shows employees what you expect of them and communicates that you’re willing to be proactive, too.