I’ve looked before at what prompts people to stand up and propose a new and radical way of doing things. Research suggests that before people stand out from the crowd, they generally scan their environment to see how safe it is for them to do so.
They’re looking for things such as how strong their relationship is with their boss (will he/she back them up) or how safe their job is, and so on. All of which makes sense, as studies have shown that innovators and creative people in general often aren’t looked on all that favourably.
A recent study confirms the crucial role emotional intelligence plays in this equation, as it equips people with the judgement required to know when to be radical, and when not to be. In other words, it gives us the judgement to know which battles to pick.
It found that whilst it’s generally a good thing to be proactive and to be seen as something of a doer in the workplace, it’s crucial that we understand the right time to do so or run the risk of being branded a pain in the backside by our bosses and our peers.
The paper is at pains to point out that personal initiative is overwhelmingly a good thing in the workplace.
“This also becomes clear in job advertisements, because 87 percent of employers demand these proactive skills from their applicants,” it says.
This in itself however is not enough, for employees have to have the political acumen to know when to deploy their initiative and when to hold back.
The difference between entrepreneurs and employees
The study highlights how a quality that is so important for entrepreneurs is not always met with the same approval in an employment situation.
“Anyone taking personal initiative should first make certain that one’s own activities are also actually desired,” the researchers say. “Anyone who doesn’t do this is frequently considered to be a troublemaker.”
So how do you know when is the right time? The research provides a number of clues.
The research team attempted to answer this across a series of experiments. The first saw a bunch of employees gathered together alongside their direct bosses. They were asked to complete a survey to gauge how often they would take the initiative for something at work together with their political acumen (ie how good is their emotional IQ).
The results of the survey provided a rough snapshot of how receptive a company is to employees taking proactive behaviours.
“An atmosphere conducive to personal initiative led to additional positive economic results only if the person has a marked degree of social acumen,” the researchers report.
Being able to read the situation
A second study was then undertaken to try and explore just how skilled people were at both understanding the situation they were in, and exploiting it accordingly. In other words, could they accurately gauge when was a good time to be proactive and when was not.
The link was quite profound. Employees received better performance appraisals from their bosses for showing initiative, but only if their skill for reading the situation was also high. If there was a descrepency then their appraisals were not so hot.
The final study then widened the net to include the employees colleagues as well as their boss. Would proactive behaviour be regarded well by ones colleagues? Once again, it emerged that our peers only responded favourably to proactive behaviour if the right moment to display it was chosen.
“This consequently means that appropriate identification of favorable opportunities and the ability to adapt to the respective situation are important preconditions for skillfully putting personal initiative behaviors into place,” the researchers conclude.
So just hoping for employees with a strong radical streak is not enough on its own. They have to know when to let forth and when to hold back.