ProactivityProactivity refers to the idea that individuals initiate action and make constructive changes in their environment. As careers have become more fluid and self-structured, the concept of proactivity has become increasingly relevant to career development. In the past several years, researchers have defined the concept in terms of dispositional tendencies to act proactively, cognitive processes that lead to initiating action, and the behavioral manifestations of proactive people.

Proactive Personality

One approach is to view proactivity as an individual disposition and examine individual differences in the extent to which people engage in proactive behaviors. Proactive personality has been defined as a stable disposition to take initiative in a broad range of situations and environments. The role of proactive personality in shaping one’s work environment is consistent with the interactional perspective in which situations are viewed as much of a function of people as vice versa. People high on proactive personality can thus be characterized as people who are relatively unconstrained by situational forces, identify opportunities and act on them, and persevere until they bring about meaningful change. Proactive personality has been shown to be distinct from other personality traits such as extraversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. Proactive personality has been related to a number of employee outcomes, including job performance, leadership effectiveness, participation at work, tolerance for stress, entrepreneurship, and career success.

Concerning career development, a proactive personality is particularly important as the responsibility for managing one’s career falls increasingly on employees. Highly proactive individuals create situations that enhance their likelihood of success and maximize their own job and career satisfaction. Empirical research has shown that individuals rated high on the proactive personality trait had achieved higher salaries, more promotions over their lifetime, and were more satisfied with their careers. In a large sample of managerial and technical workers, proactive personality had a positive effect on all three career outcomes after controlling for a number of demographic, human capital, motivation, and industry variables.

Personal Initiative

A second line of research on proactivity examines the underlying processes motivating a person to take initiative. According to this perspective, personal initiative is a behavioral syndrome in which individuals take an active and self-starting approach to work that is (1) consistent with the organization’s mission, (2) has a long-term focus, (3) is goal directed and action oriented, and (4) is persistent in the face of barriers. Personal initiative is based on action theory, which states that individuals, to a certain extent, always plan actions, and actions are guided by goals. A long-term goal orientation is the essential element of personal initiative. Accordingly, an action-oriented person will develop a fuller set of goals that go beyond what is formally required in the job, are long-term focused, and are quickly translated into actions. In the implementation of one’s goals, initiative implies that one will deal with obstacles actively and persistently. Personal initiative has been shown to be correlated, yet distinct, from the personality traits of need for achievement and an action orientation and from problem-focused coping strategies.

With respect to career development, it has been found that individuals high on personal initiative were more likely to have developed and executed long-range career plans and had higher intentions of being self-employed. Among those who were unemployed, those high on personal initiative were more likely to be employed a year later than those low on personal initiative. These findings indicate that one’s level of personal initiative impacts career planning, career choices, and job search success. It is important for career development policies and programs to consider conditions that lead to higher or lower initiative among its employees. For example, control over work conditions and task complexity increase personal initiative by empowering employees and encouraging them to develop their knowledge and skills. Career development programs need to consider the theoretical underpinnings of the personal initiative concept to teach employees to be goal directed and action oriented in developing and executing their career plans. Both the organization and the employee will reap benefits from such an approach to career development.

Proactive Career Behaviors

A final stream of research on proactivity has focused more on what proactive people do. Proactive behaviors have been defined as those that show initiative in improving circumstances or creating new ones and those that involve challenging the status quo rather than passively adapting to present conditions. For example, research has found that individuals high on proactive personality were more likely to engage in innovative behaviors, had more knowledge of organizational politics (i.e., knew who the influential people were in the organization), and took more initiative in planning their career strategies and updating their skills.

Efforts have also been made to develop typologies of proactive career behavior. Applying the extensive research on proactive behaviors during organizational socialization to the boundaryless career concept, researchers have identified four proactive career behaviors. First, career planning refers to setting goals, exploring career options, and formulating plans. Second, skill development refers to mastering important competencies for one’s occupation. This includes building one’s reputation through work experiences and increasing relevant knowledge, skills, and abilities.

Career planning and skill development help employees develop and implement career goals consistent with the concept of personal initiative. Third, consultative behaviors include information seeking, advice giving and help giving and receiving. Through consultation, individuals establish relationships with supervisors and colleagues that can benefit their careers. Fourth, networking behaviors build interpersonal relationships that can be used as learning systems. Networking behaviors help one navigate organizational politics and provide access to resources and information, both of which benefit one’s career. Career development programs need to encourage all employees, especially those low on proactive personality, to engage in the proactive behaviors identified above.


A greater understanding could be achieved by integrating the three perspectives on proactivity to provide practical advice to career strategists. Individuals, especially those low on proactive personality, may need to incorporate proactive career behaviors and the concepts of personal initiative in managing their own careers. At the same time, organizations can offer employees opportunities and learning experiences that encourage the kinds of goal-directed behaviors consistent with action-oriented personal initiative.

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  1. Claes, R. and Ruiz-Quintanilla, S. A. 1998. “Influences of Early Career Experiences, Occupational Group and National Culture on Proactive Career Behavior.” Journal of Vocational Behavior 52:357-378.
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  3. Frese, M., Fay, D., Hilburger, T., Leng, K. and Tag, A. 1997. “The Concept of Personal Initiative: Operationalization, Reliability and Validity in Two German Samples.” Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology 70:139-161.
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  5. Seibert, S. E., Kraimer, M. L. and Crant, J. M. 2001. “What Do Proactive People Do? A Longitudinal Model Linking Proactive Personality and Career Success.” Personnel Psychology 54:845-874.