Why Being Proactive Can Be Stressful

Medical Reviewer

These days it's not enough to be competent at your job you need to be proactive as well. We've firmly embedded the notion of forward thinking as an essential tool for the wellbeing, and possibly even the survival, of businesses. But is proactive behavior all good or can unforeseen and stressful consequences result?

People in all walks of life attempt to second guess a whole variety of issues on a daily basis. You can see it wherever you look. Secretaries pulling together all the information they think their boss might need for a meeting; shops, filling their shelves ready for the next big seasonal event; a mother, filling a bag with the things her baby may need that day. Forward planning is both necessary and useful. It benefits employees and companies, builds confidence and often makes people effective and successful. With so much going for proactive behavior what is there to be concerned about?

Frank Belschak and Deanne Den Hartog are academics at the University of Amsterdam Business School. They recently weighed up the pros and cons of proactive behavior in an article published in the November issue of The Psychologist. They point to a series of potentially difficult times ahead for people who use certain types of proactive behaviors. Whilst innovative behavior and career initiative are known to be linked to career success, one type of proactive behavior was detrimental. It seems that people who voice too many concerns at work are less likely to be promoted and more likely to have roles with lower salaries. This, 'initiative paradox' seems to occur when proactive behavior is perceived as out of step with the company's values. Even though the motives of the person may have the future of the company at heart, the expression of concerns about future plans or directions may simply target the person as a complainer, or as being obstructive.

The authors cite additional work by Bolino (2010) who argues that a constant drive for proactive behavior contributes to employee stress. Moreover, it increases tension between employees, reduces socialization and diminishes the ability to develop leaders. The case for such conclusions rests on the fact that proactive behaviors require both time and effort, often in situations outside of what is formally required of the job. This inevitably adds to the already heavy demands of most jobs and, if left unchecked, leads to higher stress levels.

Accepting the proactive suggestions of one person may inevitably lead to additional work for other people. Proactive people may therefore become somewhat isolated and viewed as sycophantic in their quest to climb the greasy pole. Bolino also argues that proactive behavior, whilst generally favorable, can lead to situations where it harms an organization's competitiveness. This may occur in situations where companies become tempted to drop well researched but potentially expensive courses and become overly dependent on their own employees proactive contributions.

Like many other processes, proactive behavior is useful when properly managed. Huge benefits for the individual and the company may derive from proactive behavior, but assuming there are no negative implications is wrong and potentially damaging for the individual, the workforce and the company.


Belschak, F and Den Hartog, D. (2010) Being proactive at work - blessing or bane? The Psychologist. 23 (11) 886-889.