As a culture, we applaud proactivity. Just glance at job boards and you’ll see plenty of postings looking for “self-starters,” “innovators” and “go-getters” to join workplace teams.

But are highly proactive people always a positive force in groups? Does loading your team with hustle help?

One Trait Is Not Enough

Proactivity isn’t the only key to the success equation, according to Darden Professor Sean Martin and University of Delaware’s Kyle J. Emich. In coordination with a team of colleagues, they found that having high amounts of proactivity within a group did not help team performance unless the team’s more proactive people were also more conscientious. So while the most successful teams may initiate change rather than simply respond to it (proactivity), the team members driving that change also need to be purposeful, organized and deliberate in accomplishing goals, as well as exhibit situational judgment (conscientiousness).

The researchers also found it helped the group when less conscientious members were not particularly prone to taking initiative.

In fact, as Emich explains, the “alignment [of proactivity and conscientiousness] matters significantly more than the amount of proactivity or conscientiousness present in a team.” Such alignment predicted 7 percent of performance variance in a laboratory simulation and 12 percent of performance variance in a field study, according to data published by Emich, Martin and colleagues in “Better Together: Member Proactivity Is Better for Team Performance When Aligned With Conscientiousness” in the journal Academy of Management Discoveries.

“It’s far superior for teams when the proactive people are also the conscientious people,” Martin explains. “We saw that proactivity isn’t that great if people aren’t also detail-oriented, persistent and competent. They could just proactively go mess things up!”

Rethinking Proactivity

Proactivity is vital to organizations today. Because work is increasingly complex, teams need to be able to anticipate and initiate change. This work from Emich, Martin and their colleagues shows the powerful symbiosis between conscientiousness and proactivity.

“The emphasis on change and foreseeing future opportunities gained from proactivity provides a compelling focus for the planning and preparation inherent in conscientiousness,” the research team writes.

In a laboratory experiment on proactivity, undergraduate teams completed a simulated, six-day climb of Mount Everest. Each group interacted only via computer chat to make decisions about how far to climb each day and to coordinate information about weather, oxygen supplies and medical needs.

The best-performing team showed “an ‘ideal’ pattern of [proactivity-conscientiousness] alignment,” with team members either being high or low in both traits, the paper notes.

The researchers noted of the top-performing team’s communication log “revealed consistent information-seeking and input, primarily driven by the second and third most proactive members (who were also the second and third most conscientious). For example, one of these members consistently checked in regarding future-oriented actions (e.g., ‘does everyone wanna go to camp 1 right now?’; ‘everyone wants to stay for the day?’).”

In addition, in the successful group, the least conscientious members were also low in proactivity. That meant they did not stymie the group with interruptions or off-track initiative: They only provided information when asked.

In contrast, one of the lowest-performing teams had very low proactivity-conscientiousness alignment. It was dominated by two highly proactive members who lacked conscientiousness and dictated strategy without consulting with more conscientious but quieter members of the team. Another low-performing team in the sample had several members who were both moderately proactive and conscientious, but they were derailed by the machinations of a highly proactive and not-at-all conscientious member.

“This study provides initial evidence that highly proactive team members who are not conscientious may also present a threat to team coordination by pushing ahead without the information or skills that are needed to effectively do so. As such, we find that the proactivity of less conscientious members can dampen the participation of other potentially valuable team members,” the research team writes.

3 Strategies to Build a Better Team

How can you ensure proactivity is a positive? Here are three tips based on Emich and Martin research.

Empower the conscientious but quiet. Got someone taking notes? Asking smart follow-up questions? Thinking carefully about execution? Encourage them to speak up, specifically seek their input in meetings and ask them to develop strategies for the critical parts of a project.

Manage the noise. Make sure group discussions and decisions are not dominated by your highly proactive but low conscientious people. Because of their bias toward action over thought, they may tend to hog the airtime, shooting out impulsive thoughts that waste group time. “As we see in the leadership literature, a tendency to talk more does not necessarily have bearing on whether the person actually does a good job, but it does often predict whether they emerge into a leadership role on a team,” Martin says. Level the playing field by setting clear objectives and varying how input is collected (in writing, in small breakout sessions, etc.) so that more conscientious members have greater influence.

Seek flexibility in the middle. Not every staff member will be high performing. Team members who are low in both proactivity and conscientiousness have a role to play in getting daily work done. Ideally, recruit members in this category who are flexible and “easy going in accepting direction from others,” Emich and Martin write.

Sean Martin co-authored “Better Together: Member Proactivity Is Better for Team Performance When Aligned With Conscientiousness,” which appeared in Academy of Management Discoveries, with Kyle J. Emich of the University of Delaware, Li Lu of West Chester University, Amanda Ferguson of Northern Illinois University, Randall Peterson of London Business School, Michael McCourt of Intel, Elizabeth McClean of Cornell University and Todd Woodruff of United States Military Academy.

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