Being proactive means being self-starting, and trying to bring about change in order to achieve a better future. Researchers and practitioners alike increasingly emphasise the value of a proactive approach at work, and in relation to careers. In my research I explore why some people are proactive and others aren’t, how we can encourage people to become more proactive, and when being proactive is most effective.
A growing body of research shows that being proactive requires motivational resources – such as confidence, energy, and a strong belief in the value of what we are trying to do.1 Research shows that some people are generally more concerned about the future than others, and are more likely to work towards long-term goals. But simply thinking about the future a lot may not be enough for people to become proactive. Importantly, how do we know what we are trying to achieve? Where do our goals and plans for the future come from?
In research I have conducted with my colleagues we show that people’s proactive efforts are fuelled by what we call their “future work selves.” Future work selves are peoples’ visions of who they will become in the future. They capture hopes and aspirations in relation to work, reflecting people’s values and priorities. Importantly, future work selves are not just abstract goals. They are mental images people have of themselves. They allow people to mentally travel into the future and imagine what it will be like. As a consequence, future work selves enable people to make better plans, to anticipate obstacles, and to prepare for contingencies. Future work selves thus are a source of goals. Having envisioned their own personal future, people have a better idea of what needs to change in order to make this future become reality – and this helps them become more proactive.
Our findings show that future work selves matter. In an article published in the leading journal in the field of applied psychology we show that people who have a clear future work self are indeed more proactive about their career.5 We followed people over six months and found that those who had a clear future work self at the beginning of the study increased in their proactive career behaviour over the six-month period of the study. We also found that having a clear future work self is different from a more general concern with the future, and from being focused on one’s career.
Encouraging people to think about their hopes and aspiration has long been used as a technique by career counsellors and coaches. But we knew little about how this would help people to become more proactive. Our research has shed light on how and why imagining the future can be beneficial. More importantly, our most recent findings show that future work selves can stimulate not only proactive career behaviour, but can also be used to encourage employees to bring about positive change in the organisation. In our latest project we investigate whether it is possible to encourage people to be more proactive through training and development, and who benefits most from such interventions. This is important because based on research to date the main avenues for enhancing proactivity in organisations are, for example, recruiting people with a more proactive personality, and giving people autonomy to use their initiative. However, in practice it is not always possible to hire new staff or change the work context. Training and development however represent pervasive strategies in organisations.
In our latest project we explore whether it is possible to encourage people to become more proactive by training them to envision, and work towards, their future work self. To test whether a training and development intervention based on future work selves can be effective we conducted a field experiment with 112 police officers and police support staff over a period of 10 months. We employed a rigorous research design and compared our future work self training with a conventional stress management training, and with a group undergoing no training over the course of the study. We randomly allocated volunteers to the three groups. This allowed us to rule out that people became more proactive simply as a result of taking part in a training programme, or because of external factors we had no control over, or that more proactive people were more likely to take part in the intervention. We found that a one-day workshop was enough to boost proactivity. Over the next few months, participants in our future work self-intervention more frequently tried to bring about positive change in the organisation, and in addition they also experienced higher levels of enthusiasm and contentment at work. However, individual differences played an important role for the effectiveness of our intervention. The training had positive effects only for people who are generally more future-oriented; that is, who habitually think about the future consequences of their behaviour. For these people, the future work self-intervention was successful in boosting their proactivity and positive well-being at work.6
What are implications of our research so far? Our findings show that people who have a clear image of their future work self are more proactive in shaping their career, and that training people to envision, and work towards, their future work self can be beneficial for some, stimulating them to be more proactive at work and increasing their levels of enthusiasm. Training and development based on future work selves can thus be successful in encouraging employees to be more proactive, but it is important to consider individual differences. Our findings highlight that this approach is only effective for people who are more concerned about future rather than immediate benefits.
 Parker, S. K., Bindl, U. K., & Strauss, K. (2010). Making Things Happen: A Model of Proactive Motivation Journal of Management, vol. 36, no. 4, pp. 827-856.
 Campbell, D. J. (2000). The Proactive Employee: Managing Workplace Initiative. Academy of Management Executive, vol. 14, no. 3, pp. 52-66.
 King, Z. (2004). Career Self-Management: Its Nature, Causes and Consequences. Journal of Vocational Behavior, vol. 65, pp. 112-133.
 Strathman, A., Gleicher, F., Boninger, D. S., & Edwards, C. S. (1994). The Consideration of Future Consequences: Weighing Immediate and Distant Outcomes of Behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 66, no. 4, pp. 742-752.
 Strauss, K., Griffin, M. A., & Parker, S. K. (2012). Future Work Selves: How Salient Hoped-For Identities Motivate Proactive Career Behaviors. Journal of Applied Psychology, vol. 97, no. 3, pp. 580-598.
 Strauss, K., & Parker, S. K. (2013). Making my Desired Future Happen: A Future Work Self-intervention to Enhance Proactivity at Work. Working paper. University of Warwick.
 Parker, S. K., Williams, H. M., & Turner, N. (2006). Modeling the Antecedents of Proactive Behavior at Work. Journal of Applied Psychology, vol. 91, no. 3, pp. 636-652.