When Go-Getting Goes Wrong

When Go-Getting Goes Wrong

Office politics is a delicate game: Previous research has found that over-investing one’s time in cultivating alliances and winning the office popularity contest can backfire on employees once their colleagues realize what they’re up to. But what about employees who eschew personality politics and try to curry favor with their superiors by making unsolicited innovations that help their organization operate more efficiently? Surely that’s a better way to get ahead, no?

That’s not always the case, a recent study found. At the Harvard Business Review, Andreas Wihler and Jon M. Jachimowicz describe the study, co-authored by Wihler, which found that employees who take the initiative to push change often receive scorn rather than credit from their colleagues and managers:

Whether proactivity was perceived as helpful or obnoxious hinged on employees’ levels of political skill. Those with more political skill were also more accurate in their perception of how much their organizations valued proactivity, while employees lower in political skill were essentially “blind” to the opportunities they faced – no matter how many cues the organization offered that proactivity would be rewarded. Employees low in political skill were also more likely to behave proactively when the organization didn’t favor it.

We also found that engaging in proactive behavior in an organization is a risky endeavor. Do it right, and you’re rewarded. Do it wrong, and you’re punished. Employees with higher levels of political skill were able to leverage their proactivity into more favorable performance evaluations from their supervisors. But the less politically skilled employees were actually rated worse by their supervisors when they engaged in more proactive behavior.

For managers, our study highlights that asking employees to be proactive isn’t always a good thing. Don’t assume that all of your employees know when and how to take the initiative – some people might require additional support to understand when such behavior is appreciated, and when it’s not. Indeed, some managers might even need to ask their employees to dial back their enthusiasm if the work environment does not appreciate their suggestions, or if they need to build particular interpersonal skills first.