How do you respond when a team member initiates an improvement to your team’s work methods? Do you praise them for being proactive, or do you instantly roll your eyes when hearing about it? Initiating changes to improve the team’s functioning is often considered to be risky by proactive employees. Proactive behavior in a team has consequences beyond oneself – it also impacts your team members. Nonetheless, fellow team members might be unaware that their immediate response can affect whether proactive initiatives will become successful or fail to hit the mark.
Our research, published in Human Relations, reveals how team members respond to the proactive initiatives of their coworkers. The study showcases which – and why – certain types of reactions are more favorable for the team’s performance.
Proactive initiatives are more noticeable to team members than managers
With proactivity being central for organizations to thrive, managers are left wondering how they could best lend their support to their proactive employees. Particularly managers of self-managing teams receive fewer occasions to intervene or respond to their team’s proactivity. Since their teams take control of their own way of working, they often question whether their teams are proactive enough in dealing with their constantly changing work environment. According to the researchers, the decreased visibility of proactive behavior to managers requires them to accept an alternative standpoint. Managers should be more concerned about the evaluations and responses of team members instead of their own. In fact, they should not underestimate team members – the success of proactive initiatives hinges on the judgments of those who will be most impacted.
To unravel how proactive behavior takes place in a team, the researchers studied three agile software development teams responsible for improving their own performance. For five months, they observed their meetings and daily work in the office. Here, the researchers studied how team members perceived 69 of their proactive initiatives and examined whether they became successful or not. Also, they regularly interviewed team members to understand why they reacted in a particular way and what would make them change their minds.
Time for reflection
In contrast to the beliefs of their managers, the study revealed that the self-managing teams engaged in various forms of proactivity to improve their team’s functioning. For example, team members introduced additional feedback meetings with customers, set up knowledge-sharing sessions for developers, and initiated new team communication methods. Also, they proactively came up with methods to prevent (technical) problems from arising again or presented innovative ideas for a new app feature.
Getting team members on board for your proactive initiatives
While all these efforts sound valuable to the team, this does not automatically have to be the case. The researchers found that its success heavily depends on how fellow team members perceive the proactive efforts, as their involvement is usually needed to implement the ideas.
These three strategies appeared to be essential for making a proactive initiative successful:
- Be visionary. Communicating the proactive initiative to team members with a visionary or promising tone helps to uplift team members. This was because they perceived its intentions to be genuine instead of selfish. When team members felt that the initiative was self-serving and intended to decrease their own workload, they would harshly blame and reject the proactive employee.
“Team members are more likely to support proactive initiatives when they sense that the intentions are genuine and when they can negotiate their input to the implementation”
- Be innovative. Initiatives concerning innovative ideas are most likely to be instantly admired by team members. Team members were more willing to go along with implementing team innovations and would also feel more motivated to be proactive themselves in the future.
- Be flexible. Seeing the added value is not enough for team members to appraise a proactive initiative. Proactive employees should allow their team members to negotiate changes to the initiative’s implementation. When team members felt they could fine-tune how and when they contributed, they were more willing to invest their time in implementing the change.
Positivity sparks proactivity
Proactive team members generally used team reflection meetings to communicate their initiative to their coworkers, who would immediately share their initial impressions. Afterward, the team would take action or refrain from implementing the improvement. When team members saw its effectiveness once implemented, they would feel motivated to share their own proactive initiative during the next team reflection meeting – a vicious cycle of proactivity. Thus, positive and encouraging reactions give team members the feeling that they can also make a difference and energize them to make proactive changes now and in the future.
“Managers should try to encourage their team members to respond more constructively and positively to proactive initiatives – coworker support takes away the risky feeling of suggesting improvements”
First impressions matter
These findings highlight that the success of initiatives to improve the team depends on how team members communicate, react to, and reflect upon the proactivity. When the first impression of team members is to criticize the initiative or blame the proactive employee, the proactive goals will not be realized. Such immediate reactions negatively shape the proactive process and withhold others from taking the ‘risk’ of being proactive in the future.