Customer-centric HR work needs (no) proactive employees

BION_August 2019

Just do it. Nowadays this or similar slogans seem to be a common mantra of organizations in any industry. It’s not just start-ups that use it to celebrate their leading role in the development of new, market-changing innovations, their proactive actions, their initiative to simply change things. Also, larger organizations or corporations would like to participate in this new movement of innovation and simplicity. But what kind of influence does this behaviour of proactive action have and how does it actually relate to the innovative power of an organization?

By Christopher Kuhl 

Innovation research has already shown us in previous studies how important innovative strength and the associated development of innovations is for securing the competitiveness of a company (Ruttan, 1959; von Hippel, 1988; Brockhoff, 1987). This innovative strength not only plays a vital role in value-creating areas but also in support functions such as human resources. It is not by chance that the relevance of HR innovations increases to remain competitive with other companies in times of demographic change and the VUCA world. Developments such as the use of modern digital systems to map HR services, new approaches to performance measurement and the empowerment of employees or the applicant-centric design of recruiting processes and experiences are just a few examples. In practice, the findings of innovation-promoting framework conditions of innovation research are increasingly being considered to align HR work innovatively and customer-centred, such as the implementation of an innovation process, the development of employee competencies or changes in corporate culture. The current state of innovation research already offers sufficient models with structural and process-related descriptions of how the innovative power in one’s organization can be positively influenced.

Requirements for proactivity must be given

From the perspective of “Human beings in innovation development”, Lee et al. (2019) concentrate in their study on a completely different aspect and analyze the connection between human behaviour in innovation processes and the success of innovation developments. For their investigations in the form of two multi-level studies, Lee et al. (2019) focus specifically on the aspect of proactivity, the “Just do it” mentality, in innovation processes. For this purpose, the authors use the term proactivity to describe actions that are initiated by the employee himself and focus on change. The result of their study is that the proactivity of employees in innovation processes has a positive effect on the innovation power of the organization. They investigate the relationship between employee proactivity and group-based creative and innovation processes and can demonstrate a significantly positive correlation (β= .40, ∆R2= .13, p < .05). Previous research has shown that the proactive behaviour of employees is particularly enhanced by factors such as perceived responsibility for effective change, trust in management, and role breadth self-efficiency: the ability of employees to perform broader and more proactive tasks that go beyond the previously defined basic requirements (Parker, 1989). Other factors such as transformational leadership, work characteristics (such as autonomy, complexity and control) or a positive experienced work atmosphere serve as prerequisites for the occurrence of proactivity (Lee et al., 2019). The study by Lee et al. (2019) proves the positive correlation between proactivity and innovative strength, thus confirms proactivity as a positive driver of innovative strength in the organization. However, the use and promotion of proactivity should be treated with caution. A high level of employee proactivity does not always lead to positive results.

Recent studies by Reynolds Kueny, Jundt, and Shoss (2019) show that the supportive effect of proactivity in innovation processes only becomes visible if the proactive employee also demonstrates the corresponding social skills. Under the term social skills, the authors summarize the ability to read, understand and control social interactions effectively. An employee with a high level of social skills can better interpret interpersonal situations, communicate effectively, build positive relationships with employees, improvise in unexpected situations, and act appropriately. The results show that employees with a low level of social skills and a high level of proactive behaviour outdistance their colleagues in innovation processes and the work environment and “lose” on an emotional level (Reynolds Kueny et al. 2019). The proactive employee then triggers stress or frustration in his colleagues and thus promotes a negative working atmosphere, from which he can suffer.

For the use of proactivity for the positive support of innovation processes, whether in the area of customer-centric HR work or other topics, factors for proactive behaviour cannot be considered independently of the development of an employee’s social skills. Consequently, for the orientation of a Human Resource Management System in the context of supporting organizational innovation, it seems critical to succeed in promoting social skills as well as factors of proactivity such as perceived responsibility for effective change, role breadth self-efficiency and trust in management.