Your HR strategy has a big influence on how proactive employees will be

What gives an organisation an edge over others in its field?

Leadership is an obvious answer but those in leadership make up a tiny percentage of an organisation. It’s those they lead who are important in making the difference between good and excellent performance.

Research in the Human Resource Management Journal suggests that there is a link between organisational context and how proactive employees are likely to be. The idea being that more proactive employees tend to come up with more innovative ideas, engage more and generally perform better.

The research

Data was gathered from 306 employees across 120 professional service firms in Spain.

Two constructs were explored:

  1. Role-breadth efficacy, i.e. the confidence a person has in their ability to succeed in their broad role. (For more on this, see Albert Bandura’s work).
  2. Flexible role orientation, i.e. how likely a person is to engage in activity outside of their main role. (For more on this, see Sharon Parker’s work).

Whereas previous research has focused on individual characteristics in relation to proactive behaviour, such as intrinsic motivation, this research focused on the high-performance work systems (HPWS), namely HR practices, that enable and support proactivity.

The researchers focused on HR strategy and the practices underpinning it because of the influence it has on clarifying roles, shaping relationships between managers and staff and in developing employees.

To do this, the researchers use the Ability-Motivation-Opportunity (AMO) framework as an underpinning construct by which to explore their hypotheses. The AMO framework was devised by Thomas Bailey in 1993 and then developed further by Eileen Applebaum, Bailey and several others in 2000. It suggests there are three aspects to creating high-performance, namely:

  • Ability (A) can be influenced by recruitment and selection to ensure that capable
    employees are recruited in the first instance, and by training, learning and development.
  • Motivation (M) can be influenced by extrinsic rewards (e.g. pay increase) and intrinsic rewards (e.g being put on high profile project), along with performance reviews, development, job security and work-life balance.
  • Opportunity (O) is influenced by being given genuine involvement in initiatives, team-working, autonomy, communication, job design and job rotation.

The findings

  1. Role breadth self-efficacy (confidence) mediates between high-performance work systems (HR practices) and employee proactivity.
  2. Flexible role orientation (the job) does not mediate between HPWS (HR practices) and employee proactivity.

In summary, the confidence (“I can do this”) that employees have in performing a wide set of tasks is more relevant than their beliefs about what their job is (“I have to do this”).

Underpinning this is how the HR practices work together in order to facilitate that confidence and proactivity. As the researchers say,

“It is the bundle of HPWS [HR] practices that determines proactive behaviour than the influence of a set of isolated practices”

Implications for organisations and practitioners

Organisations the world over are looking to save money and/or grow. Proactive behaviour can benefit both the individual (e.g. career development) and the organisation (e.g. customer satisfaction).

The more a person feels they are good at their job and will be given time and space to learn, the more proactive they are likely to be.  Underpinning this is psychological safety and fairness. This is reiterated by the researchers when they state,

“a belief that one can be successful at work is likely to be relevant in proactive behaviours because such behaviours entail a high potential psychological risk to the individual”

Practical things organisations and HR teams can do include:

  1. Management development focused on motivation: Developing people managers so they know how to and take the time to understand what motivates each individual person in their teams can make a big difference to performance. I’ve been running a lot of manager workshops recently and it still surprises me how little even experienced managers (a) know about motivation theories and (b) take the time to learn about each person in their team.
  2. Build confidence through feedback and recognition: This continues on from the first suggestion. If managers are taking more time to understand what make their staff tick, then they are more likely to know what helps (and impedes) confidence. A key facet of building and maintaining confidence is giving timely, specific feedback for work well done. One manager I know sends hand-written cards which says thank you and acknowledges an employee for a specific thing they did well. This act of recognition and feedback is a good way to give a confidence boost and reinforce the kind of behaviour you’re looking for.
  3. Review competency frameworks: To what extent do your current frameworks promote and support proactive behaviour? For example, one review I recently carried out for an organisation showed that the competencies (and language used) were all about caution, permission, control and perpetuating bureaucracy. Yet, the organisation concerned wanted to be innovative, creative and fast-paced. Therefore, the people they were recruiting and their development programmes were at odds with where they wanted to be.
  4. Improve communication and engagement channels: The emphasis, in this instance, really needs to be on engagement. This is so that employees feel able to contribute to the direction of the organisation, and get feedback on how their contribution has helped. Yuhyung Shin and Min-Jeong Kim published some interesting research on this, which suggests the more opportunities you give employees to participate and have control over their work the more likely they are to be proactive and perform better.
  5. Use your performance management framework: One organisation I’m working with wants more ideas from its staff. Because the organisational culture is currently quite traditional, it will be difficult to just say to staff ‘feel free to send your ideas direct to the chief executive’. The existing norms don’t support that. We, therefore, need to use the current HR systems to help facilitate collaborative working, encourage innovative ideas and proactive behaviour. By using the performance management framework, we can then start to reward and recognise the desired behaviour and move the culture on.

Anything missing? What would you advise organisations and HR teams looking to increase employee proactivity and performance? Send your comments in so that others can benefit from your ideas.

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