Help Wanted!

Must be a self-starter – proactive

Must be motivated and innovative

Must be a self starter and able to make decisions with minimal supervision

The quotes listed above from actual help wanted ads are representative of commonly sought after traits in potential employees. We want goal driven self-starters, motivated to deliver results, champion initiatives and advocate for the organization’s goals with little supervision.  And why not? Proactive traits are essential for success in the fast paced, goal driven frenzy present in many organizations today. Leaner, flatter organizations require employees who can think and act independently on the organization’s behalf.

A common assumption is that proactive, self-directed traits come with the person; that these traits can be turned on like a light switch.  Interesting research from the Netherlands presents alternative conclusions. Instead of suggesting that expecting people to be consistent in showing proactive, initiative taking behavior regardless of the situation, F.D. Belschak and D.N. Den Hartog suggest employees are proactive and self-directed depending upon the situation.  Their research concludes three behavioral targets (the organization, the immediate team and self) inspire different levels of the proactive, self-motivating, change oriented behavior employers seek.

Belschak and Hartog conclude what most of us know:  Employees are not appliances to be plugged in and perform until their warranty expires. Fortunately, their research suggests proactive leadership behavior that may inspire the proactive, pro social behaviors desired from employees.

Transformational leadership practices stimulate employee’s initiative taking behaviors on behalf of the organization and/or team. That’s because transformational leadership inspires people to focus on collective goals by infusing work with meaning and a purpose bigger than the self.  Belschak and Hartog are among many researchers who suggest transformational leadership practices encourage proactive behavior on the part of the whole because we like to be part of something bigger than ourselves.  Leaders who take the time to describe what the organization is trying to achieve and relate it to the employee’s work have a higher likelihood of inspiring employee self directed behavior on behalf of the organization.

Team leadership practices encourage employees to develop understanding and appreciation for the roles of teammates. The bonus is that team leadership practices promote greater empathy and caring among team members built upon personal understanding and relationships.  Belschak and Hartog’s research concludes that employees frequently have a stronger bond with other team mates than for the broader organization, which explains why even seemingly disaffected team members will step up and initiate action on behalf of peer team mates. Leaders who invest in developing a team instead of a group of followers often reap the benefit through self-initiated support for peers when it’s needed most.

Performance oriented practices support self-directed behavior on behalf of the individual employee. Goal setting practices stimulate performance related to goal-oriented tasks and potential rewards serve as personal, self-directed motivation. Leaders who invest the time to understand employee career aspirations and to help employees translate them into personal, performance-oriented goals gain the benefits of proactive, self-directed performance.

Self-starting, self-motivated employees willing to go above and beyond are at the top of every leader’s list.  To a large extent, organizations can hire for this type of behavior, but need leaders to encourage people to bring out their best.  As Peter Drucker observed, “ The questions remain the same, but the answers change.” In this case, the answer to how to obtain consistent proactive behavior might lie within both the employee hired and the leader’s effort.


Belschak, F.D. and Den Hartog, D.N. (2010).  Pro self, prosocial and pro-organizational foci of proactive behavior: Different antecedents and consequences.

Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 83, 475-498.

2 thoughts on “Help Wanted!

  1. Hi Susan – wonderful post…I think it is true that you can hire the most engaged, enthusiastic and self-motivated people in the world and they can be developed or destroyed by the quality of leadership they receive.

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