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Proactive Behavior Training: Theory, Design, and Future Directions

  • NUS Business School and Leuphana University Lüneburg


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Proactive Behavior Training
Theory, Design, and Future Directions
Mona Mensmann, Leuphana University of Lüneburg
Michael Frese, Leuphana University of Lüneburg and
National University of Singapore
This manuscript is in press and will appear in the book “Proactivity at work” edited by
Sharon K. Parker and Uta K. Bindl, Routledge. It is a postreview prepublication
version of the manuscript. Please refer to Routledge for the proof-read final version of
the manuscript.
Cite as:
Mensmann, M. & Frese, M. (in press). Proactive behavior training. In S. K. Parker & U. K.
Bindl (Eds.), Proactivity at Work. New York: Routledge.
This research was partially supported by National University of Singapore (R-317-000-084-133) and by the
World Bank
The present chapter deals with training for personal initiative, one of the most important
proactivity constructs. Based on the facet model of personal initiative and action regulation
theory, the chapter gives an outline of the theoretical background of personal initiative
training and describes possible training designs for the increase of personal initiative and
work performance. It also addresses current challenges of personal initiative training and
proposes possible solutions to face them. The chapter closes with recommendations for
further investigation and improvement of personal initiative training.
The following chapter describes a contradictio in adiecto. Its title “Proactive Behavior
Training” promises that it is possible to train people to become more proactive. Training is
typically done by a trainer – thus, a trainer causes change in other people’s behavior. He or
she often instructs training participants to model behavior and trainees are supposed to follow
given instructions. What if the goal is to teach people not to follow what others suggest and to
start actions themselves instead?
We answer this question by portraying important elements of personal initiative training.
Personal initiative is conceptualized as proactive behavior (Bindl & Parker, 2010; Grant &
Ashford, 2008). The term “personal initiative” is a good term for proactive behavior because
it is clearly a behavioral term. Personal initiative implies that people act in a self-starting
way, that they prepare their actions for the long term, and that they overcome barriers on the
way towards their goals (Frese & Fay, 2001).
Although recent research has shown the long-term effect of situational variables like job
demand and job control on proactive personality (Li, Fay, Frese, Harms, & Gao, 2014),
proactive personality is defined as a personality trait that is relatively independent from
outside influences (Bateman & Crant, 1993) and therefore difficult to change. Proactive
personality is highly related to the Big Five (Tornau & Frese, 2013) and it has a genetic base
(Li, Song, Arvey, & Zhang, 2013). In contrast, proactive behavior, and more specifically
personal initiative behavior, is changeable. For example, it is changeable as a result of
modification in work conditions (Frese, Garst, & Fay, 2007). In this chapter, we concentrate
on how to train personal initiative with the help of a training approach based on action
regulation theory (Frese, 2009; Frese, & Zapf, 1994, Hacker, 1998; Zacher & Frese, in press).
We think of training a behavior and observing the effects of this training as the ultimate
proof of a behavioral theory (Frese & Fay, 2001). We also urge other theorists to think in the
same way. As long as we have not shown that a change in a relevant variable (such as
personal initiative) changes putative dependent variables, we have only scratched the surface
to provide causal proof for a relationship. Even longitudinal studies often still allow
alternative causal interpretations (often of the “third variable”- type). Therefore, it was
important for us to utilize a randomized controlled group design to assess the effects of
personal initiative training (Glaub, Frese, Fischer, & Hoppe, 2014) which together with other
training studies in this area is going to be described in this chapter. We also shed light on the
limitations of personal initiative training and give scientific and practical recommendations
on how to design and investigate personal initiative training in the future.
The Sequence of Actions
As personal initiative describes proactive behavior, it has to be embedded in an
individual’s actions. Actions are behaviors oriented towards a goal. In line with action
regulation theory (Frese, 2009; Frese, & Zapf, 1994, Hacker, 1998; Zacher & Frese, in press),
every action process starts with a goal (see Table 1). The next step is the search for important
information necessary to reach the goal and the conscious, as well as unconscious elaboration
of plans. Plans work as action programs and structure how to reach the selected goal. They
function as a bridge between thoughts and action (Gollwitzer, 1999; Miller, Galanter, &
Pribram., 1960). When people put plans into practice, they receive feedback concurrently to
acting and after an action cycle. People are able to use feedback to adapt their behavior by
comparing intended and performed action.
The action sequence should not be conceptualized as fixed phases that have to follow a
certain order. Far from it, goal setting, information search, planning, executing and feedback
can and often do occur in a scrambled sequence. We only suggest that all of these aspects of
the action sequence are important for action. An action sequence can return to earlier phases
of the sequence. For example, after having set a goal and developed a plan, people might
already search for feedback on the planning before the execution of actions.
Personal Initiative
To explain personal initiative in human actions we build on the facet model of personal
initiative (Frese & Fay, 2001). According to the facet model, personal initiative consists of
three components. Individuals who show personal initiative act in a (1) self-starting, (2)
future oriented and (3) persistent way throughout the action process. Thus, personal initiative
constitutes the opposite of passive and reactive behavior (Grant & Ashford, 2008).
Acting in a self-starting way means that individuals start actions themselves without
waiting for instructions from outside or simply reacting to personal role requirements
resulting from the various work roles (Frese & Fay, 2001). Also, taking up ideas that are “in
the air” would not count as personal initiative (however, improving those ideas, can very well
be an example of personal initiative). A secretary, for example, shows self-starting working
behavior when her superior asks her to correct the grammar of an e-mail and she does not just
improve the grammar, but makes a suggestion concerning the contents of the e-mail to
improve its quality.
Future oriented behavior involves the consideration of and preparation for possible future
set-backs and opportunities (Frese & Fay, 2001). An example for someone showing future
oriented behavior is an entrepreneur who anticipates future product or service trends in his
sector in order to avoid declining sales figures for his company. Originally, we called the
component of future oriented behavior “proactive behavior” (in line with the original Latin
concept of “pro” meaning for and before). This has produced some confusion, because Frese
and Fay (2001) used the term for a subset of personal initiative, while the rest of the literature
(e.g., Bindl & Parker, 2010) used personal initiative as a subset of proactivity. We now also
refer to proactivity as the more general term.
Persistence constitutes the third component of personal initiative (Frese & Fay, 2001).
Personal initiative leads to changes and changes most often co-occur with problems and
obstacles. Showing persistence means that the individual confronted with a problem does not
give up when internal or external barriers appear. Internal barriers are barriers inside the
individual, for example, frustration or lack of motivation to continue. External barriers are
caused by the environment, for example, shortage of money or the lack of access to important
information. Being rejected by a potential employer, for instance, can lead to internal barriers
for a jobless person in terms of feelings of uselessness. This may make the unemployed stop
his or her job search. In contrast, when confronted with barriers, a persistent person puts extra
effort into the continuation of job search. Studies by Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews and
Kelly (2007) about persistence to which they refer as “grit” underline its importance as
crucial factor for success in many different settings.
We see the three components of personal initiative as not isolated from each other. They
constitute a positive syndrome of behaviors that are mutually interdependent (Frese & Fay,
2001). Thinking about future problems and opportunities initiates self-starting behavior and
the will to overcome barriers. On the other hand, starting an action in a self-starting way
gives new perspectives on how an individual can prepare for the future and increases
persistence. Finally, persistence leads to new self-starting actions and stimulates the
consideration of future problems and opportunities as this helps to overcome further
The most proximal antecedents of personal initiative are orientations (Frese & Fay,
2001). Orientations are of medium specificity; that is that they are neither general personality
traits, nor specific attitudes towards a concrete task (Frese & Fay, 2001). Orientations shown
to affect personal initiative are control appraisals, self-efficacy beliefs, control and
responsibility aspirations, change orientation, handling of errors, and active coping (Frese &
Fay, 2001).
Control appraisals, self-efficacy beliefs, control, and responsibility aspirations lead
people to believe that they can control a situation and that they have an impact on several
outcomes (Folkman, 1984). Self-efficacy is the belief in ones capability to effectively display
functional behaviors (Bandura, 1997). Control and responsibility aspirations describe
peoples’ readiness to accept responsibilities that result from the perceived control they have
(Frese & Fay, 2001). We think that taking on responsibility is particularly important in the
context of small businesses, as well as in the area of unemployment. All too often, the call for
outside help, be it to the state (as in some Western countries), some donor (as in developing
countries) or the family (as in collectivist countries), is an attempt to dodge the
responsibilities for one's own well-being. The foundation of personal initiative and its action
orientation implies that people have to be responsible for their own situation. Thus, waiting
for others or for a better environment, or hoping for other people to intervene, is often
dysfunctional. Rather one should pursue one's own goals, take whatever help one is getting,
but never relinquish the responsibility to others. Taking over responsibility is one key
premise of personal initiative. Control cognitions (such as taking responsibility, control
expectation for outcomes and for one’s actions) have been shown to be causal mediators in
the process of work characteristics and how they influence personal initiative (Frese, Garst, &
Fay, 2007). However, they also influence the work characteristics directly and indirectly –
this means that there are cycles in the sense of positive cycles that lead to higher personal
initiative and downwards cycles that lead to a reduction of personal initiative (Frese et al.,
The other three orientations - change orientation, handling of errors and active coping -
help to deal with potential negative consequences of personal initiative (Frese & Fay, 2001).
Personal initiative often leads to changes and change orientation prevents individuals from
developing fear of these changes (Frese, 2001). Similarly, managing errors reduces fear
because again, personal initiative is different and self-starting and, therefore, errors can easily
occur when showing personal initiative. Finally, personal initiative may lead to more stress,
as changes often cause fear. People who use active coping strategies know that they are able
to deal with potential negative outcomes of personal initiative (Frese & Fay, 2001).
Developing the Training Content along the Facet Model
The three personal initiative components can be related to each aspect of the action
sequence (Frese & Fay, 2001), producing Table 1. We used this table to develop the training
content, the cases, and the exercises of the training (cf. Glaub et al., 2014).
Goal setting. According to goal-setting theory (Locke & Latham, 2002), goals that are
difficult and specific generate the highest performance. Non-concrete and abstract goals leave
room for interpretation and thus allow being satisfied with a low level of effort (Locke, Chah,
Harrison, & Lustgarten, 1989). Personal initiative training should therefore teach participants
to set themselves (and others) challenging and specific goals.
However, our approach suggests on top of goal setting theory two important aspects:
First, we teach training participants to come up with self-developed goals because goals need
to be self-starting and goals given by others are not self-starting. Sometimes the larger higher
order goal may be given but self-starting goals are used to embellish and reinterpret them;
this is for instance the case for employees who increase quality without being told, for
unemployed people who use creative job search strategies or for entrepreneurs who are
creative in marketing – the overall goals (company goals, goal to find a job, goal to increase
sales) may be very similar; however there is still room for active self-starting goals. During
personal initiative training for unemployed, for example, participants have to learn that they
should not perceive the overall goal to get a new job as externally dictated, but that they
should turn this goal into several active internal goals. They are for example asked to
formulate challenging self-starting goals that are as specific as possible and that allow them
to become active right away (i.e. “I want to write 15 job applications to potential employers
a day and call the companies if they do not answer within the next two weeks”). Second, as a
self-starting goal implies a certain element of newness and creativity, the training teaches the
participants to develop goals that are different from those typically pursued by others in a
similar situation. These different goals drive creative new ideas to achieve them.
Future oriented goal setting implies that the person needs to think about future problems
and opportunities; these are then translated into goals. Often thinking about goals in a future
oriented way may help to differentiate one’s goals from others in the same situation.
During the training, participants also have to learn how to protect existing goals when the
situation threatens its realization or leads to frustration. Thus to some extent, the persistence
and overcoming barriers notion of personal initiative implies a certain degree of self-
regulation and self-management (Frayne & Latham, 1987). We can only be persistent if we
protect goals from distraction or from strong frustration leading to premature giving up a
Information collection and prognosis. Personal initiative training teaches participants
how to search for information actively, instead of waiting until information is provided. This
information can also be used to prepare for possible threats and opportunities and to inform
oneself of new fields of action that could be of future relevance. Information search is
sometimes difficult and exhausting. Consequently, personal initiative training prepares for
these situations and teaches the individual how to maintain the search despite difficulties.
Planning. Planning is the mental simulation of actions (Zacher & Frese, in press). The
aim of a plan is to implement the goal. Thus, one of the most important functions of planning
is to keep the goal intact even when things do not turn out as the plan has prescribed.
Personal initiative training teaches participants planning flexibility. There needs to be some
stability in planning, but plans should not be confused with recipes that are used without
thought once they have been developed (Gielnik, Frese, & Stark, 2015; Mumford, Mecca, &
Watts, 2015). Rather they should be conceived to be flexible, with improvisational
interruptions and with flexible approaches. In the context of entrepreneurship, for example,
people often do not have the necessary resources and need to invent them on the spot (Baker,
Miner, & Eesley, 2003). Thus, planning needs to be open to changing conditions and flexible
approaches. This is a major aspect of personal initiative training because personal initiative
requires flexible approaches to dealing with barriers.
A self-starting plan does not just have to be active, but people need to keep plan
execution in their own hands – delegation of plan execution to others often leads to a kind of
ballistic plan (Dörner & Schaub, 1994). Similarly, to throwing a ball into a game and then
turning your back to it, a ballistic approach implies that one does not continue the supervision
of a plan execution well enough – either one relies too much on one’s own routines or on
other people. Personal initiative training participants learn how to make active plans relying
on their own actions or own supervision of their execution.
In order to develop the participants’ competence to plan in the long term, personal
initiative training teaches the development of back-up plans that prepare for potential
problems as well as plans to seize upcoming opportunities in order to be prepared when they
arise. As difficulties in reaching the set goal will most likely occur, training participants have
to learn how to develop a plan B in case of barriers and how to deal with problems flexibly.
Personal initiative training prepares participants to return back to plans as quickly as possible
if unpredicted events interrupt the execution of existing plans. Another training approach
focusing on overcoming barriers in the workplace is the web-based training for the
development of psychological capital by Luthans, Avey, and Patera (2008). The training aims
at strengthening the participants’ resilience by showing short clips of resilient role models,
providing guidance on how to apply resilient behavior in the workplace and offering the
possibility to transfer the learnings to own work situations.
There are two potential problems of planning. One is the prognosis of the time needed to
execute a plan – most often the prediction of execution is wrong (Buehler & Griffin, 2015).
Outsiders are often much better in predicting the time needed to complete a plan. Thus,
people should learn to look at a plan with the coolness of an outsider rather than with the hot
ideation of a person who is just doing this task (Buehler & Griffin, 2015). Therefore, it is so
important to think of potential problems that could appear and to have a clear understanding
of how far one is still removed from accomplishing a task. Moreover, the knowledge of past
mistakes that one has made in executing past plans is particular useful (Buehler & Griffin,
2015). This is in keeping with our emphasis in this training to learn from errors and to record
There is another problem that planning can bring along. Some people use a high degree
of intensive planning as a shield to allow them to procrastinate (van Eerde , 2015). Using
planning for this purpose may be the result of anxiety. Actions are finite interventions into
reality; thus, they cannot be taken back. Personal initiative training teaches people the priority
of action - thus, in case of doubt we need to act quickly, with an adjustable and flexible
approach (plan), rather than trying to find that one perfect plan that encompasses all
In the end, everything we think is and should be in the service of the action and not the
other way around - that is the most important premise of action regulation theory. However,
the doing becomes better when people plan because planning helps to improve actions before
they are performed.
Feedback. Feedback needs to be actively sought and developed. Personal initiative
training teaches how to actively look for feedback without waiting for other people or
situations to provide it. Participants begin to proactively use feedback in order to detect
possible future problems and opportunities. They also learn to continue with feedback search,
even when obstacles arise. Personal initiative training encourages participants to constantly
enhance their search of not just positive, but also, importantly, negative feedback in order to
promote personal and professional development. Proactive feedback seeking contributes to
increased performance in many ways. It gives an insight into other people’s evaluation of
own work behavior, into the relative importance of different goals, into the way of operating
in certain environments and into possibilities to improve performance (Ashford &
Cummings, 1983; Ashford & Tsui, 1991; London, Larsen, & Thisted, 1999; Morrison, 1993;
Porath & Bateman, 2006). Thus, getting feedback increases self-awareness, reduces people’s
uncertainties concerning their ability to change behavior and helps to decrease stress levels
(DeRue & Wellman, 2009). Negative feedback is of particular importance, as it allows for
correcting behavior for the sake of increasing performance (Frese & Keith, 2015). For
example, managers who actively search for negative feedback show better performance
(Ashford & Tsui, 1991). One conception of the personal initiative training approach is
influenced by the error management training perspective and the emphasis on learning from
errors (Keith & Frese, 2008). This is reflected in our focus on the active development of
feedback signals, on the detection of errors (negative feedback) and on writing errors down.
At the same time the training teaches participants how not to be intimidated by errors and
how to use them as learning instruments for future behavior (dealing with problems actively
in the sense of active self-regulation).
Making the Training Work: From Action Principles to Personal Initiative
In our introduction we stated that teaching personal initiative is a contradiction in and of
itself. Fortunately, there is nevertheless a way to do it. It is possible to start with the
development of an active mindset through action principles which participants then
interiorize and refine with the help of action training within and outside of the training
situation. Personal initiative training can put into motion a positive cycle (Sonnentag & Frese,
Our training combines a top down approach (learning general principles that compose an
operative mental model) with a bottom up approach (learning through action and
flexibilization of routines by making and learning from errors). The training material contains
action principles from scientific results. We work from the assumptions of evidence based
management (Rousseau, 2012). Evidence based management means that managers use a
combination of good scientific evidence, evidence from their own context of work and own
work experience that they have thoughtfully evaluated (Briner, Denyer, & Rousseau, 2009;
Glaub et al., 2014). Thus, a science based approach helps us to develop action principles
(Locke, 2004). At the same time, we are praxeology oriented – we believe that all trained
behavior must be applicable to the situation of the trainees. Table 2 describes the different
facets of action training.
1) Action Principles for Rudimentary Operative Mental Models
The personal initiative activation process starts with the creation of operative mental
models of personal initiative. Operative mental models are at the core of actions (Frese &
Zapf, 1994; Hacker, 1998). They are models that people use to interact with their tasks and
environment (Norman, 1983). The term “operative” underlines the necessity that mental
model characteristics must be oriented towards the practice of the participants. An operative
mental model of personal initiative in the context of job search, for instance, includes
personal initiative behaviors in the job seeking process like self-starting interactions with
potential employers and the proactive search for job opportunities that societal developments
could provide in the near future. Stored behaviors change and develop in interaction with the
job market. To create operative mental models of personal initiative in the context of work,
trainers should explain each facet of personal initiative and teach participants how to execute
goal setting, information search, planning and feedback seeking in a self-starting, future
oriented and persistent way.
While the operative mental model is developed top down, the bottom-up approach
includes learning through action (Frese & Zapf, 1994). This aspect will be discussed below.
Action principles (Glaub et al., 2014; Locke, 2004; Rousseau & McCarthy, 2007) serve
as good rules. They link personal initiative theory to participants’ actions. In many training
situations, knowledge conveyed is not applicable – often because the knowledge may be too
complex, too abstract, or the connection between thought and action may be too weak.
Consequently, people cannot transform knowledge into operative mental models which then
in turn lead to personal initiative. Action principles allow transferring the abstract action
background into “rules of thumb” that are teachable, usable, and adaptable to the action
context (Glaub et al., 2014). Action principles should be derived from the current best
evidence in the respective context (Briner, Denyer, & Rousseau, 2009; Rousseau &
McCarthy, 2007). In addition, they should be easily understandable. Examples of action
principles from personal initiative training for entrepreneurs are “Look actively for
information. Don’t wait until people tell you” for the self-starting component in the
information collection and prognosis phase, “Set some long-term goals with a timeframe of
half a year to one year” for the proactivity component in the goal setting phase or “Anticipate
possible problems and develop back-up plans” for the persistence component in the plan and
execution phase.
The functionality of action principles of personal initiative has to become evident, that is
training participants should understand that following action principles leads to increased
success in their respective work situation. Cases from the participants’ own work
environment that describe why personal initiative action principles are useful in relevant
action areas and why action principles help to acquire personal initiative can help here. They
usually depict either positive or negative role models of personal initiative in various work
settings. Research suggests that using models in trainings contributes to better training
outcomes in terms of self-efficacy and performance (Gist, 1989). We also know that giving
concrete examples to illustrate abstract knowledge increases learning success (Anderson,
Reder, & Simon, 1996). In the context of entrepreneurship, for instance, cases can portray
entrepreneurs following the action principle “Look actively for information. Don’t wait until
people tell you”, as well as the positive consequences resulting from this behavior like for
instance the gain of new clients due to the competitive advantage resulting from the gathered
information. Case based reasoning is then important for the development of planning
(Mumford, Giorgini, & Steele, 2015; Osburn, Hatcher, & Zongrone, 2015 ).
2) Verbalization and Interiorization of Operative Mental Models
Thus, participants of personal initiative training develop first rudimentary operative
mental models. As participants are supposed to show self-starting, proactive and persistent
behavior on their own, independently from outside activation, other steps have to follow.
They should allow for participants’ autonomous correction and completion of operative
mental models and stand-alone development of personal initiative routines.
Interiorization (Galperin, 1966) means that participants of personal initiative training
develop their own internal action schemes which guide their actions. Verbalization, defined
as the inner or outer verbal fixation of former non-verbal work tasks (Tomaszewski, 1981),
constitutes the link between external personal initiative stimulation through training and
internal action schemes promoting personal initiative (Hacker, 1998, Luria, 1970). Through
verbalization, individuals process external information, in this case mainly personal initiative
action principles and their use and importance in the context of work, and translate them into
internal action goals. These goals are then the basis of interiorization processes. This may
lead to actions by the participants that have not been supported by the trainer. For example,
we often observed training participants who developed networks among themselves.
3) Action Training for More Sophisticated Operative Mental Models
Learning by action is necessary for the development of operative mental models and
respective action schemes (Frese, 2009; Frese & Zapf, 1994). There are three arguments why
learning through action is required (Frese, Beimel, & Schoenborn, 2003). First, human beings
are by their very nature active as they are dependent on actions to survive. Second, learning
through action creates a deeper relationship between thoughts and actions and therefore
actions are necessary to get from declarative knowledge (“knowing that”) to more action-
oriented procedural knowledge (“knowing how”). Third, actions help to discover the
situational conditions under which action knowledge is applicable or non-applicable, making
acquired knowledge and skills more flexible.
Case studies already provide support for creating operative mental models of personal
initiative. They set the stage for a first engagement with personal initiative. However, in order
to enable transfer, participants should actively apply their learnings from case studies and the
resulting personal initiative action schemes to their own work situation. In the context of job
search, for example, it is not enough to only analyze cases of self-starting and reactive job
seekers. Participant have to subsequently think of their own reactive routines and turn them
into self-starting job searching behavior. The repeated engagement with and active
application of different personal initiative facets during training leads to a first routinization
of personal initiative actions. As a result, new active behaviors replace old reactive routines.
As people derive their motivation to change from the comparison of how they are and
how they want to be (Carver & Scheier, 1998), feedback on participant behavior plays a
crucial role in the action training phases of personal initiative training. Feedback mechanisms
are the most important source of behavior correction (Frese & Zapf, 1994; Miller et al.,
1960). Positive and negative feedback have different functions which are both vital for the
behavioral change through personal initiative training. The main function of positive
feedback is to encourage individuals to proceed with their behavior and to develop self-
confidence. Negative feedback, in contrast, points to behavior patterns that are incompatible
with the aims of their actions and leads to self-reflection and metacognition, meaning the
individual’s ability of developing plans and evaluating their goal approach (Brown,
Bransford, Ferrara, & Campione, 1983; Ford, Smith, Weissbein, Gully, & Salas, 1998; Gully
& Chen, 2010).
Errors are a particularly valuable form of negative feedback in action training. They
constitute a very direct and informative knowledge base making the participants aware of
dysfunctional behavior (Frese, 2009; Keith & Frese, 2008) and contributing to the correction
and completion of operative mental models. Another advantage of errors is their capacity to
prevent premature routinization of personal initiative. An important precondition for a
positive impact of errors on behavior is that training conditions encourage participants’ to
make errors and that trainers communicate the value of errors for improvement (Frese,
Beimel, & Schoenborn, 2003; Heimbeck, Frese, Sonnentag, & Keith, 2003). In the context of
personal initiative training for call center agents, for example, role plays can offer a platform
for making errors. A role play can for instance help a participant having a wrong mental
model of persistent customer acquisition who thinks that being persistent means to continue
persuading a customer to buy a product with the same arguments again and again. During the
role play he experiences that this behavior could be detrimental because clients become
annoyed. Before his mental model of persistence in customer acquisition ends in
routinization, he can now complete it with different strategies how to deal with customer
Feedback mechanisms should be adapted in the course of action training. During the first
exercises, extensive and detailed feedback on every exercise and presentation helps to refine
operative mental models of personal initiative. In later phases of the training, when mental
models are already more sophisticated, feedback can get more general (cf. Frese, Beimel, &
Schoenborn, 2003). While in the beginning, feedback should mainly come from trainers, they
should more and more fade into the background and leave the task to provide feedback to the
participants themselves. By this means, participants become able to self-regulate existing
behaviors and action schemes and get in control of their personal initiative.
4) Training Transfer
Acquired skills and knowledge do not exert long-time influence on behavior if they are
not connected to the participants’ respective job situation (Aguinis & Kraiger, 2009). During
the training, participants learn how to transfer action principles of personal initiative to their
own job environment with the help of exercises in which they analyze and change their
current work situation. Although this practice already provides a first link between training
content and the work situation, participants must repeatedly apply their personal initiative to
concrete work situations in their daily professional life in to fully routinize personal initiative.
This setting provides natural feedback from available feedback sources. Furthermore, real life
action training allows for the training of flexible usage of action principles. Therefore, at the
end of personal initiative training, every training participant should develop an own personal
project (Little, 1983) based on a job-related goal, and operationalize it in weekly plans how to
achieve the project goal. To assure constant feedback during the realization of their personal
projects, participants should discuss their progress with a peer taken from the other training
Personal projects provide the opportunity of making further errors, this time in the real
life context. They further correct wrong operative mental models of the intended behavior
(Frese & Zapf, 1994). An entrepreneur who develops a personal project with the goal to
increase sales by distributing business cards, for example, benefits from this project in two
ways. First, the project gives him the chance to put his knowledge on the necessity to be
different from his competitors into practice. He can now actively pursue what he has
theoretically grasped. Second, while pursuing his plan, he might find that the distribution of
business cards does not really serve as a unique selling proposition raising sales level in his
sector and correct his mental model of successful differentiation from others.
Personal Initiative Trainings in Different Contexts of Work
In the following, we present the effects of personal initiative on work performance in
various settings. We then illustrate different training studies aiming at the increase of work
performance through personal initiative. Some of the training studies explicitly concentrate
on training of personal initiative; others address the orientations above which lead to personal
initiative or related constructs.
Table 3 depicts the design and main results of training interventions in the context of
entrepreneurship, employment and unemployment. Some of these trainings have the status of
pilot trainings. However, whenever a pilot training appears to achieve its purpose, it makes
sense to develop a more sophisticated experimental design and to give this training a trial.
Trainings for Entrepreneurs
In the domain of entrepreneurship, personal initiative is crucial for business success for
three reasons. First, according to Shepherd (2014), proactivity facilitates facing opportunities
and difficulties in the entrepreneur’s environment. Second, due to the growing speed in which
businesses have to operate, the striving for being the first instead of a follower of competitors
constitutes a major competitive advantage (Shepherd, 2014). Third, as entrepreneurs are
oftentimes solely responsible for their business (Frese, 2009) because there are no
organizational institutions and processes that structure their actions, they need to show
proactive behavior. Research substantiates this thought. Personal initiative enhances business
success for small and medium size business owners (Frese, 2000; Glaub et al., 2014; Krauss,
Frese, Friedrich, & Unger, 2005). There is also evidence for the impact of personal initiative
on sales (Crant, 1995) and entrepreneurial performance (Glaub et al., 2014; Solomon, Frese,
Friedrich, & Glaub, 2013).
One example of personal initiative training in the entrepreneurial context is the
randomized controlled field intervention by Glaub et al. (2014) which used the above-
mentioned action training approach (see Table 3). It encouraged participants’ personal
initiative in every part of the entrepreneurial action sequence. The training promoted the
interiorization of entrepreneurial personal initiative action principles (Glaub et al., 2014).
Participants worked on entrepreneurial cases with high or low personal initiative, applied
their new knowledge to their own context and developed personal projects which they
implemented with the help of another participant as implementation partner giving feedback.
The training was successful in increasing personal initiative of training participants and led to
higher business success in terms of sales, number of employees and low failure rates.
Other personal initiative training approaches similar to the one described above are the
training by Frese, Hass, and Friedrich (2015) for small scale business owners in Germany as
well as the training by Solomon et al. (2013) for owner-managers of small businesses in
South Africa (see Table 3). The two training interventions, both of them quasi-experiments
with a pre-test post-test design and a control group enhanced participants’ personal initiative.
For German entrepreneurs, this increase then positively affected the number of employees
(Frese et al., 2015). In the South African context, personal initiative subsequent to the
training caused a rise in business sales, as well as better business performance in terms of
proactive goal-setting, planning, and innovation (Solomon et al, 2013). An effect on time
management was not detectable.
Trainings for Employees
In the context of white collar occupation, personal initiative leads to active self-
management of one’s own career, high commitment to the organization and the introduction
of innovations. Research provides evidence for the positive impact of proactivity in general
and personal initiative on employee performance. On the individual level, proactivity has
positive influence on career management, which is in turn linked to the employee’s career
satisfaction (Raabe, Frese, & Behr, 2007). Employees behaving in a proactive way receive
higher salaries, get promoted more frequently and have a higher probability of earning
rewards (Grant, Nurmohamed, Ashford, & Dekas, 2011; Seibert, Crant, & Kraimer, 1999;
Van Scotter, Motowidlo, & Cross, 2000). On the organizational level, due to the constantly
changing work environment, organizations are more than ever dependent on their employees’
personal initiative (Axtell & Parker, 2003). There are positive effects of employees’
proactivity on affective commitment towards their organization (Thomas, Whitman, &
Viswesvaran, 2010). Also, personal initiative is crucial for initiating and going ahead with
innovations (Tornau & Frese, 2013).
One intervention example is the career management training to stimulate employees’
active career building by Raabe et al. (2007). It was guided by action regulation theory and
successfully focused on the increase of self-knowledge, goal commitment and the quality of
career planning as antecedents of active self-management behaviors (see Table 3). The one
group pretest-posttest design intervention addressed rank and file employees of a large
international company based in Germany and aimed at fostering active behavior in all phases
of the action sequence for managing one’s own career. Throughout the training trainers
communicated that employees should actively care for their own career management without
waiting for supervisors and colleagues from the human resource department to plan their
careers for them. Participants had to develop career goals and plans for their next five years
of employment. In addition, they were supposed to look for information that could help them
to achieve their goals and mentally simulate actions that lead them to goal attainment,
including dealing with potential problems during the pursuit of their plans. 360-degree
feedback on participants’ strengths and weaknesses, as well as feedback on their actions and
result presentations provided the possibility to correct career building behavior. The
successful increase in active career building initiated a more active career self-management
which then in turn led to more career satisfaction.
There are two other personal initiative trainings for employees which are based on action
regulation theory (see Table 3). One is the personal initiative pilot training for employees of
an international company in the financial sector by Schildbach (2002), Pulwitt (2002) and
Garman (2002). The other training is a stress management pilot training for civil servant
employees by Coch (2002). Both are non-randomized pretest-posttest control group
interventions. The training in the financial sector fostered personal initiative, as well as
orientations leading to personal initiative (self-efficacy, error competence, perceived control)
which subsequently decreased employees’ negative feelings and passivity. The stress
management intervention showed mixed findings with regard to personal initiative
orientations and stress management. Some postulated changes could not be found (cf. Table
3). Nevertheless, the training produced positive outcomes. Participants showed an increase in
self-efficacy and work change, as well as a decrease in emotional and cognitive strain, job
induced tensions and the feeling of helplessness.
Another randomized controlled training intervention built on social learning theory
(Frayne and Latham, 1987). It was aimed at increasing job attendance of state government
employees. The training successfully increased self-efficacy, as well as job attendance after
the training.
Strauss and Parker (2014) developed two randomized controlled interventions to train
proactive behavior in policemen. One was a problem focused intervention comparing the
current situation and a desired situation in the present. The other one was a vision-focused
intervention comparing the current situation and a desired situation in the future. The
trainings were grounded on cybernetic control perspectives. Both interventions were
successful in increasing proactive behavior. Nevertheless, they did not work equally well for
all policemen. The problem focused intervention increased proactive behavior for people with
high role overload, while the vision-focused intervention worked best for those high in future
Trainings for Job Seekers
Proactive behavior is also beneficial for (re)integration into the job market. In the context
of job search, action-state orientation (composed of disengagement, persistence and initiative
and therefore related to the personal initiative concept) leads to more job search effort
(Wanberg, Zhu, & Van Hooft, 2010). Job search effort, in turn, is related to faster
reemployment (Kanfer, Wanberg, & Kantrowitz, 2001; Wanberg, et al., 2010).
Two examples of increasing active job search behavior are the pretest-posttest control
group interventions by Eden and Aviram (1993) and Yanar, Budworth, and Latham (2009,
see Table 3). Both of them successfully promoted self-efficacy to stimulate job-searching
behavior. The self-efficacy training for job seekers with postsecondary training by Eden and
Aviram (1993) used video cases and subsequent role plays to rehearse the intended job-
search behaviors. Participants got feedback from other participants and trainers underlined
that successful behavior in the workshop constitutes a prerequisite for future successful
behavior in job search. As a result, especially participants with low levels of self-efficacy
before the training showed a higher job-search activity and a higher reemployment rate.
Yanar, Budworth, and Latham (2009) used the method of verbal self-guidance to boost
women’s self-efficacy regarding successful job search. The training was based on cognitive
theory (Bandura, 1977) which argues that people are able to proactively shape their
environments (Bandura, 2001). Participants were asked to turn negative self-statements that
produce inner barriers for job search into positive statements guiding job-searching actions.
The trainer modeled these actions. In addition, role plays were used to practice acting.
Trainers encouraged the participants to continue using the positive statements they have
developed in the training in their subsequent job search. After the training, trainees were
more engaged in job search than control group members. They were also more likely to find
secured employment.
Table 3 depicts other training approaches for training personal initiative or personal
initiative orientations in the context of unemployment. Action regulation theory is the basis
for the pretest-posttest intervention for German job seekers by Frese et al. (2002). The
training worked with case studies and role plays to routinize personal initiative, as well as
with exercises for the development of more self-confidence. A rise in personal initiative,
competence expectation and self-confidence and a decrease in negative feelings and
psychomatic symptoms were the results of the training. Noordzij, van Hooft, van Mierlo, van
Dam and Born (2013) used goal orientation theory as a basis for their self-regulation training
with a quasi-experimental pretest-posttest control group design. Training participants were
unemployed job seekers who were registered in different branches of a reemployment-
counseling agency in the Netherlands. The training taught them how to develop goals and
adopt a learning goal orientation. As a result, participants increased learning goal orientation
and showed less job-search performance avoidance. Participants became better in dealing
with negative experiences, increased their awareness of different and more challenging job
seeking strategies and intensified planning of job-search activities. Self-efficacy, in contrast,
was not increased. The training promoted trainees’ reemployment rate.
Evaluation of Personal Initiative Training
A successful training project should not only strive to maximize stakeholders’ benefits,
but also prove its usefulness (Aguinis & Kraiger, 2009). This implies two rules. First, the
training design should allow for a meaningful evaluation. A randomized controlled field
experiment (Reay, Berta, & Kohn, 2009; Shadish & Cook, 2009), which allows for direct
comparison of training outcomes with a similar control group, is best here.
Second, if someone wants to evaluate personal initiative, he or she should concentrate on
evaluating behavior. This sentence seems to be trivial and redundant, but it is important.
Researchers should measure training effectiveness by evaluating performance before and
after the training and the change in personal initiative behavior. Therefore, the distinction
between proactive personality and proactive behavior (Frese & Fay, 2001; Parker & Collins,
2010; Tornau & Frese, 2013) is also relevant when it comes to evaluating personal initiative
training. The increase in personal initiative should be measured with behavioral measures
detecting changes in work-related behavior.
Searle (2008) measured training success regarding a change in personal initiative using a
personal initiative self-report scale developed by Frese, Fay, Hilburger, Leng and Tag (1997).
This scale asks about general beliefs regarding own personal initiative. A sample item is
“Whenever something goes wrong, I search for a solution immediately”. This scale is a useful
instrument of measuring general personal initiative in the sense of proactive personality.
However, it is not useful to measure change in behavior. Thus, we agree with Searle that this
measure of proactive personality is not easily changeable through training.
Frese et al. (1997) and Frese and Fay (2001) recommend using more behavior-oriented
measures. Meta-analysis results reveal that interview-based personal initiative is more
strongly related to objective success than self-evaluations or evaluations of others’ personal
initiative (Tornau & Frese, 2013). Asking for concrete behavior in an interview setting is a
useful method of analyzing the self-starting, proactive and persistent aspect of behavior. One
possibility is the use of an interview asking for different facets of work related behavior (Fay
& Frese, 2001; Frese et al., 1997; Glaub et al., 2014). In the context of entrepreneurship,
Glaub et al. (2014) conducted interviews asking the entrepreneurs who participated in
personal initiative training for their entrepreneurial behavior in the past months. More
specifically, they examined how the entrepreneurs approached their self-set goals, how they
dealt with problems that occurred in their businesses, if and how they tested product or
service quality and if and how they introduced changes concerning several business aspects
in their businesses. The interviewer notes were coded by two independent coders.
Interviewers also provided barriers to a person and asked him or her for possible ways to
overcome them (cf. Fay & Frese, 2001).
If possible, other measuring methods should accompany interview measures aiming at
detecting personal initiative. Triangulation (Webb, Campbell, Schwartz, & Sechrest, 1966),
meaning the use of different methods to measure the same construct, ensures high validity in
the measuring process. In addition to that, using further methods for personal initiative
assessment can help collecting additional data not affected by social desirability. In the case
of personal initiative, other evaluation methods could be the observation of individuals’
behavior or the evaluation of personal initiative by significant others like their spouses (Frese,
Kring, Soose, & Zempel, 1996; Frese et al., 1997).
Limitations of Personal Initiative Training
There are two sides to every coin. Personal initiative training is a useful method for
increasing personal initiative in various work contexts. Personal initiative itself is, in turn,
related to better performance in the trained performance domain. Nevertheless, we want to
point to potential downsides of personal initiative training that may appear and that we have
observed during trainings and by talking to training participants. Studies have already shown
that proactivity does not always contribute to higher performance or perceived performance
in the workplace (Grant et al., 2011; Wihler, Blickle, Parker Ellen III, Hochwarter, & Ferris,
2014). However, research on the disadvantages of training personal initiative does not exist.
The following are first ideas that need to be empirically examined.
Personal initiative training gives people the chance to take initiative and change their life
to be more successful. On the other hand, this kind of training is likely to increase aspirations.
We experienced one example in the training for small and medium entrepreneurs in Lomé,
Togo. During one of the training sessions, a participant said that she would like to complain.
She was one of the most avid participants in the training. The very reason that the woman
was so passionate about the training also caused problems. She explained that whenever she
devoted herself to life outside work, she started to feel that she was wasting her time. She felt
that even breastfeeding her baby took too much of her time. Although she was saying this
with a grin in her face, the woman addressed an important challenge that everyone offering
personal initiative training faces. Bolino, Valcea, and Harvey (2010) warned that the focus on
and expectation of proactive behavior from employees in organizational settings may cause
strain. Personal initiative training, in contrast to trainings that focus on teaching concrete
skills like managerial skills, provides its participants with a potentially unlimited set of tasks.
As it teaches a constant self-development towards an active approach to the environment,
training participants may be dissatisfied because there is a constant increase in their
aspiration levels. Increasing aspiration levels, in turn, leads to more and more tasks to do.
Another possible downside is the overconfidence that some participants develop as a
result of the training. Overconfidence is a cognitive bias which leads to the overestimation of
one’s own abilities (Koellinger, Minniti, & Schade, 2007). In the domain of entrepreneurship,
for example, overconfidence leads to underestimating risks and to unrealistic goals, making
non-optimal decisions, and going for promising opportunities on the basis of ambiguous
information (Frese & Gielnik, 2014; Hmieleski & Baron, 2008; Simon & Houghton, 2002).
In our personal initiative training for small scale entrepreneurs, we encountered cases of
entrepreneurs who developed unrealistic goals and plans as a result of their newly activated
personal initiative. An example of this is that many entrepreneurs set the goal to move to a
completely different locality to jump-start their businesses. For some of them, this goal is
surely well-chosen and leads to the gain of new customers or the payment of lower rents.
However, for some, this may also be the result of unrealistic expectations; they may believe
that they can double their sales by simply changing the location. In these cases, the training
may have led to an underestimation of obstacles. Trainers of personal initiative training
should always emphasize a degree of realism. A balance between teaching to dare to change
one’s environment and the communication of a sense of reality is indispensable. Fortunately,
the emphasis on searching for negative feedback and on managing errors instead of denying
them may help here. Making small experiments and failures without too many risks involved
is one possible method to avoid overconfidence.
In general, personal initiative training has been shown to be successful. However, a third
challenge may be a high variance in participants’ personal initiative that may appear as a
result of personal initiative training. The majority probably gains a lot from the training.
Nevertheless, some people may not change their behavior to a large extent. Although the
training provides action principles giving action oriented guidelines on how to increase
personal initiative, certain participants may not be able to translate their personal initiative
knowledge into fruitful personal initiative despite our efforts. The variance in training effects
might be the result of individual differences. Strauss and Parker (2014) showed that future
oriented participants were more able to benefit from a training focused on the increase in
proactive behaviors by letting participants compare their current state with desired future
states. However, we should also consider possible changes in training conditions that allow
every training participant to benefit from personal initiative training. Further research is
needed to shed light on the reasons for variance in training effects and to investigate which
training supplements or additional measures could help to facilitate the translation of training
content into personal initiative.
Recommendations for Research and Practice
We think that the personal initiative training for small scale entrepreneurs (Glaub et al.,
2014) is promising as a strategy to enhance performance for different target groups in the
work context. However, it is possible to improve training effectiveness.
One way to increase training effectiveness may be a better match of training participants
to training design. We postulate that different training participants will react differently to
different training contents. Gully and Chen (2010) propose a theoretical framework of
attribute-treatment interactions. They state that cognitive, behavioral and affective training
outcomes are dependent on an interaction between trainees’ capabilities, demographics,
personality traits and interests and values and the training with its specific training design,
features and situational characteristics. Up to now, there is a lack of research examining the
training-trainee relationship and its influence on the training effectiveness in the area of
proactivity training (Strauss & Parker, 2014).
To close this gap, researchers and practitioners should address the following aspects of
proactivity training. First, we need to examine participant preconditions that facilitate or
prevent training success. Possibly, personal initiative training can lead to extraordinary
training benefits for those participants who already have set goals, but have given them up
without trying. Some training participants reported that they were feeling as if the training
woke them up and made them realize that they had to work hard to attain the goals that they
had already had before. These participants often belong to those who benefitted the most
from personal initiative training. This phenomenon can be well described by differentiating
between goal intentions and implementation intentions. Goal intentions specify an outcome
the individual desires and create a certain but still small commitment towards this outcome
(Gollwitzer, 1999). A goal intention does not guarantee goal achievement because situational
factors may distract a person from goal pursuit (Gollwitzer & Sheeran, 2006).
Implementation intentions appear as a result of developing a plan which bridges goal
intentions and actual behavior leading to goal attainment. The plan specifies when, where and
how the individual responds to upcoming opportunities to reach a goal (Gollwitzer, 1999).
Action training for personal initiative helps to develop plans. Participants who were already
motivated by some goals now also find the means to attain them.
Second, research should identify trainer characteristics influencing participants’ training
success in proactivity training. We assume that trainers constitute a vital factor of training
success in personal initiative training. Trainers can for example play a decisive role in
increasing self-efficacy beliefs and control and responsibility aspirations regarding personal
initiative work behavior. In the domain of white-collar occupation, Wu and Parker (in press)
showed that leaders` support of employees in form of availability, encouragement of growth
and noninterference lead to enhanced proactive employee behavior through the increase of
self-efficacy and autonomous motivation. We hypothesize that the same relationship should
be true in the trainer-trainee relationship. We saw this type of phenomenon in one of our
trainings. During the last session of the training one of the most encouraging trainers asked
his participants to give feedback on the training and to express what they had learned. An
illiterate business woman selling dried fish in a market in Togo stood up and announced that
the training had changed her life as she was now thinking of herself to be strong enough to
improve her business practices despite her age and lack of education. In addition, although
already at an advanced age, she decided to learn how to read and write in order to be more in
control of her business. The other market women in her course started to applaud and
affirmed that they were feeling the same way.
Third, future research should search for potential complements of personal initiative
training. One possibility would be a combination of personal initiative training with classes
teaching knowledge and skills that are relevant for the respective job situation. In this
manner, practitioners could minimize the risk of participants engaging in useless or even
harmful actions that might arise from their awakened personal initiative. In the context of
entrepreneurship training, for example, we suggest the combination of personal initiative
training with classes equipping participants with knowledge on business related topics like
bookkeeping and market segmentation. We are convinced that learning from errors is a
helpful method to correct former ineffective behavior. Nonetheless, we think that teaching
skills can be a useful supplement to personal initiative training as it leads to a more effective
correction of behavior after error making.
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Table 1
Personal Initiative Facets in Action Sequence (Frese & Fay, 2001) with Action Principles and Training Examples (based on Glaub et al., 2014)
Goal setting
Personal initiative
element Learning goals Action principle
examples Example in work context Example in unemployment context
Set active goals
Redefine goals if
Set different goals
Be different from
those around you!
Add something
interesting and new
to the things that
you do!
Set a self-developed goal for an
innovation within the company
Go beyond of what is required by
the company; think of new ways to
approach your work that makes it
more interesting and that helps the
company’s achievement of its
Set a new high and specific active
goal to approach employers, e.g.
write 30 applications per week or
write an application only after
having researched the company
for 1 hour on the internet
Identify future
problems and
Translate them into
Think of what you/
your company needs
in 2 years! Develop
specific goals for it!
Base the innovation on future
trends and potential future
problems in the company’s sector
or in society in general, e.g. based
on the demographic changes in
society, develop a partial
retirement model for your
company that allows people to
work beyond retirement age
Think about possible future
developments in the intended
field of work and make sure that
you meet them, e.g. learn how to
use the latest technology in your
field of work
Protect goals when
barriers occur
When barriers
occur, think of three
ways how to deal
with them – Don’t
get stuck on only
one idea!
Don’t give up the innovation
immediately if others (i.e. your
supervisor) consider the idea as
inconvertible, try to convince them
of your idea, prepare for example a
convincing presentation
Maintain job search despite
several letters of refusal and
subsequent frustration and
demotivation, let these barriers be
the reason for even more
initiative to get a job
Information collection and prognosis
Personal initiative
element Learning goals Action principle
examples Example in work context Example in unemployment context
Search actively for
employers actively!
Look for at least two
sources of
information that are
rare and hard to
Look for information on similar
innovations and necessary
procedures and technologies,
compare for example your
invented partial retirement model
with other models already
implemented in other companies,
industries or countries
Approach the job market actively,
do not wait until other people
suggest job vacancies, e.g. ask
employers about divisions that
could need further support or let
employees of desired companies
tell you what the companies’
demands are
Use information to
prepare for possible
threats and
Ask yourself: What
could be possible
threats and
opportunities for
me/ my company in
3 months/ 2 years?
Inform yourself about future trends
that the innovation could cover and
identify possible adaptabilities of
the innovation in case of problems,
e.g. think about campaigns that
increase the model’s acceptance
among employees
Inform yourself about which
company will hire personal in the
future and which company might
have to discharge employees, use
this information for strategic job
information search
even if finding
information is
Identify at least one
alternative to every
information source
that you use!
If there is no information on the
innovation available, try to look
for other ways to get them, e.g.
call a team leader of one of the
companies that have already
introduced a work model similar to
what you want to introduce in your
Maintain information search on
the job market despite difficulties
like the lack of information on
vacancies matching your job
profile , look for different
information sources such as
friends or employees of desired
Plan and execution
Personal initiative
element Learning goals Action principle examples Example in work context Example in unemployment context
Make plans that
demand one’s
own action
Be flexible in
Define the actions that
you yourself are going
to undertake!
Make a weekly plan on
when you are going to
undertake which action!
Make a detailed plan on how to
introduce the innovation, think
about personal actions, e.g. when
and how do you want to present,
design and implement the partial
retirement model?
Make a detailed plan on how to
actively approach possible
employers, e.g. which employers
will you approach on which day
and how many applications will
you submit in which timeframe?
Develop back-up
Develop plans
how to seize
Ask yourself: What are
potential barriers on my
way to the goal?
Make at least one plan
B per barrier on how to
overcome it or how to
turn it into an
Develop a plan B in case the first
plan on how to introduce the
innovation does not work out, for
example when and how will you
implement the campaign
increasing employees’ acceptance
of the model in case they do not
support the idea?
Develop a plan B on how to find
a suitable job in case the intended
strategy is not successful, e.g.
think about possibilities of self-
employment or working abroad
in case none of the national
companies is interested in your
Go back to plan
as quickly as
possible in case
of difficulties
Don’t let negative
emotions like
frustration stop you
from following your
Go back to the initial plan on how
to introduce the innovation after
difficulties have been overcome,
e.g. continue following your
implementation plan in case the
campaign has increased acceptance
Go back to the initial plan on how
to actively approach possible
employers after having switched
to job search on the international
job market
Monitoring and feedback
Personal initiative
element Learning goals Action principle examples Example in work context Example in unemployment context
Search for
feedback without
waiting for
others to provide
Approach people in
your environment and
let them give you their
positive and negative
feedback on your goal-
directed behavior!
Ask colleagues and supervisors for
their feedback, implement
feedback sessions on a regular
basis, also approach people outside
of the company in order to get
their unaffected feedback
Ask friends and relatives, as well
as employees and employers in
the desired field of work for their
feedback on different aspects of
your job search such as the
quality of your applications or
your persuasiveness in job
Use feedback to
detect future
problems and
Ask yourself: Does my
behavior lead to future
work success? What
exactly should I
Use feedback from colleagues and
supervisors to make the innovation
sustainable, ask them for example
what they consider as possible
future threats and opportunities for
an implemented partial retirement
Use feedback from friends,
relatives and employees for
searching a stable job, let them
tell you what they think are
possible ways to find a job in the
future or if they think your
application choices will lead you
to a stable occupation
Continue with
feedback search
in case of
Look for at least one
alternative to every
feedback source that
you use!
Keep asking for feedback even if
people refuse due to a lack of time
or motivation, try to find a more
suitable date and time for a talk in
this case
Think about other feedback
possibilities such as specialized
journals or experts in the field of
demographic change
Keep asking for feedback even if
people refuse due to a lack of
time or motivation, try to
convince them to give you
feedback or to give you the
contacts of other helpful people
that could do so
Think about other feedback
sources such as job interview
trainings or company websites
informing about company values
Table 2
Summary of the facets of personal initiative training
Facet Contents
Action principles for rudimentary
operative mental models
Development of action principles from the best
scientific evidence (if possible: meta-analyses)
Provision of good examples from the participants’
Creation of a rudimentary understanding of
personal initiative
Use of cases to illustrate the importance of action
First transfer to own business
Verbalization and interiorization of
operative mental models Verbalization of personal initiative action
Development of personal initiative action
Action training for more
sophisticated operative mental models
First actions within the training:
o Transfer of learnings
o Trainer and participant feedback
o Error learning through metacognition
o Coping with frustration
Routinization of personal initiative
Training transfer Action training in the work environment
Mainly self-correction and self-feedback
Transfer of personal initiative to real life tasks
Flexibilisation of personal initiative
Table 3
Overview of different personal initiative trainings and related training approaches
Trainings for entrepreneurs
Author(s) N
Aimed change in Theoretical background Training design Training outcomes
Frese, Hass, &
Friedrich (2015) 36 97 Personal Initiative
Personal Initiative
Action Regulation
Control group
No randomization
Increased personal initiative
Increased number of employees
Glaub et al. (2014) 56 53 Personal Initiative
Personal Initiative
Action Regulation
Control group
Increased personal initiative
Increased sales levels
Increased number of employees
Lower failure rate
Solomon, Frese,
Friedrich, & Glaub
27 30 Personal Initiative
Personal Initiative
Action Regulation
Control group
No randomization
Increased personal initiative
Increased innovation
Increased proactive goal-setting
and planning
Increased sales levels
No effect on time management
Trainings for employees
Author(s) N
Aimed change in Theoretical background Training design Training outcomes
Coch (2002) 8 7 Stress
Action Regulation
Social Learning
Control group
No randomization
Increased self-efficacy
Decreased emotional and cognitive
Decreased job-induced tensions
Decreased helplessness
Increased work change
No effect on locus of control
No effect on being strong-willed
No effect on change activity
No effect on time pressure
No effect on psychomatic
afflictions and depression
No effect on job satisfaction
subjective performance efficiency
and intention to leave
Frayne & Latham
(1987) 20 20 Self-Regulation
Social Learning
Control group
Increased perceived self-efficacy
Increased job attendance
Raabe et al. (2007) 205 0 Self-Regulation
Personal Initiative
Action Regulation
No control group
No randomization
Increased self-knowledge
Better plan quality
Higher goal commitment
More active career self-
Increased career satisfaction
Schildbach (2002),
Pulwitt (2002), &
Garman (2002)
12 10 Personal Initiative
Personal Initiative
Theory, emphasis on
Action Regulation
Control group
No randomization
Increased personal initiative
Increased self-efficacy
Increased process-oriented error
Increased motivational control
Decreased emotional and cognitive
Decreased passivity
Strauss & Parker
20/20 72 Proactivity
Cybernetic Control
Control group
Increased individual task
proactivity in problem-focused
intervention for individuals
experiencing high role overload
Increased organization member
proactivity and involvement in
shaping the future of the
organization in vision-focused
intervention for future-oriented
Trainings for unemployed
Author(s) N
Aimed change in Theoretical background Training design Training outcomes
Eden and Aviram
(1993) 39 27 Self-Efficacy
Self-Efficacy Theory
Control group
Increased general self-efficacy
Increased job-search activity for
people low in initial general self-
Higher reemployment rate for
people low in initial general self-
Frese et al. (2002) 8 0 Personal Initiative
Personal Initiative
Theory, emphasis on
Action Regulation
No control group
No randomization
Increased personal initiative
Increased competence expectation
Decreased emotional and cognitive
Less psychosomatic symptoms and
Increased self-confidence
Noordzij, van
Hooft, van Mierlo,
van Dam, & Born
161 84 Self-Regulation
Goal Orientation
Control group
No randomization
Increased job-search learning goal
Decreased job-search performance
Better dealing with negative
Increased awareness of different
job seeking strategies
More planning of job-search
Increased reemployment rate
No increase in self-efficacy
Yanar, Budworth,
and Latham (2009) 27 28 Self-Efficacy
Social Cognitive
Control group
Increased self-efficacy
Increased job search behavior
Higher rate of secured employment
compared to control group
Training for other target groups
Author(s) N
Aimed change in Theoretical background Training design Training outcomes
Searle (2008)
44 in 2
51 Personal Initiative
Personal Initiative
Action Regulation
Control group
No increase in self-reported
personal initiative
Only short-term increase in
independent ratings of personal
Less strain compared to control
group, but no difference between
PI treatment and a stressor
reduction program
... We have theorized that follower proactivity and high PS fit are antecedents of servant leadership, and this study provides corresponding evidence of positive associations. Taking account of the positive association with follower proactivity, organizations that aim to promote servant leadership may further this aim by emphasizing proactivity as a criterion in recruiting employees (Lin 2018), and by including proactivity training within employee development programmes (Mensmann and Frese 2016). Considering also the positive association between servant leadership and high PS fit, an additional means for promoting servant leadership would involve corporate culture interventions that emphasize shared values, which could increase the prevalence of high PS fit followers. ...
The study drew on Conservation of Resources Theory to explain the adoption of servant leadership behaviours vis-a-vis targeted followers and these behaviors’ positive association with worker effectiveness. We collected 365 follower-leader dyadic questionnaire responses in mainland China and conducted 20 interviews in Hong Kong. Results showed that followers’ proactive personality and high person-supervisor fit are positively associated with supervisors’ servant leadership behaviours, with the latter in turn positively associated with followers’ work effectiveness. Our findings challenge the conventional assumption that servant leadership is solely a manifestation of the traits of the leader. Keywords: Conservation of Resources Theory, Follower proactive personality, Followership, Mainland China and Hong Kong, Person-supervisor fit, Servant leadership.
... Third, the results of our studies suggest that employees whose jobs require them to frequently engage in interpersonal interactions with others might benefit from proactive behavior training (Crant et al., 2017;Mensmann & Frese, 2017). Our results suggest that teaching employees proactive behaviors that are relevant in service encounters, such as engaging in information exchange with customers who experience negative affect, may be particularly beneficial for employees low in proactive personality. ...
Drawing upon theory and research on affect transference and proactive personality, we examine the proactive behaviors employees enact to limit the reciprocal transference of negative affect between customers and employees during service encounters. Results of two event-based, multi-source field studies in the service industry show that employee proactive personality weakens (a) the positive relationship between customer negative affect before the service encounter and employee negative affect during the service encounter and (b) the negative relationship between employee negative affect during the service encounter and customer ratings of service quality after the service encounter. Employee information exchange with the customer mediates these moderating effects. These findings highlight the potential for employee proactive personality and information exchange with customers in limiting the transfer of negative affect in service encounters and minimizing negative further downstream effects on customers’ perceptions of service quality.
... They can also devise fora or programs to help employees voice their opinion about work. By helping employees in this way, the organization may gain information, ideas, and knowledge of concerns regarding the organization (Mensmann & Frese, 2016). ...
... In particular, the individual is oriented towards the compensation of loss or harm in the past. During organizational entry, however, it is not sufficient to simply react to cues from the environment, but rather new workers need to plan ahead and prepare themselves for future changes, threats or opportunities by taking the initiative themselves (Mensmann & Frese, 2017). Although reactive coping with a situation that has already occurred seems to be reasonable when facing different situations at work, proactive coping should be more useful at the new workplace. ...
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The proactive dimension of human behavior is rooted in one’s need to create and control the environment. Individuals prefer to do things actively and creatively rather than being counteractive. The dynamics of the job market demand that individuals are increasingly independent and proactive, can easily adapt to change, and create their own future. This way of understanding a newcomer’s activity corresponds to proactive coping. The main goal of this study was to investigate the role of proactive coping of workers in a new workplace and in job adaptation outcomes, namely well-being. Data was collected from newly employed workers (
... Individuals who lack agency competence can attempt to increase their knowledge about themselves as well as to improve their abilities to make decisions, to break down goals into sub-goals, and to come up with feasible action plans that help to meet these sub-goals. This can be done by taking part in designated training, coaching, supervision or counselling sessions, as well as a range of other introspective activities (e.g., Jack & Smith, 2007;Kombarakaran, Yang, Baker, & Fernandes, 2008;Mensmann & Frese, 2017;Wilson & Dunn, 2004). Similarly, agency beliefs can be developed through therapeutic sessions and designated trainings, as well as upcoming mastery experiences (Bandura, 1986;Gecas, 2003; see also Eden & Aviram, 1993;Gist, 1989;Gist & Mitchell, 1992). ...
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This chapter proposes a conceptualisation and operationalisation of human agency in work contexts based on a larger literature review. In a first step, two conceptually different perspectives of human agency are discussed: (a) agency as something individuals do and (b) agency as a personal feature of individuals. Both perspectives are then integrated into a larger framework also including situation-specific context factors. In a second step, three distinct components of human agency as a personal feature of individuals are derived and discussed: (a) agency competence (i.e. the capacity to visualise desired future states, to set goals based on these states, to translate these goals into actions, to engage in these actions, and to deal with upcoming problems), (b) agency beliefs (i.e. perceptions of whether one is agentically competent or not), and (c) agency personality (i.e. a stable and comparable situation-unspecific inclination to make choices and to engage in actions based on these choices with the aim to take control over one’s life or environment). In a third step, the results of this theoretical discussion are then used to propose an operational definition of human agency that may be used in a range of empirical studies employing hypothesis-testing methods.
Objectives The purpose of the current study is to test the efficacy of the Proactivity Orientation Program (POP) in facilitating university freshmen's proactive socialization. Design/Setting A longitudinal field experiment was designed to test the hypotheses. Based on action regulation theory, the 8-h POP included training on developing goals, collecting information, generating and executing plans, and processing feedback. Participants A total of 148 freshmen from a comprehensive university in China were randomly assigned to a control group (N = 74) or an experimental POP intervention group (N = 74). Main outcome measures Questionnaires regarding four proactive socialization behaviors (i.e., feedback seeking, relationship building with instructors, general socializing, and positive framing), social integration, and anxiety were administered. The Office of Educational Administration provided freshmen's GPAs for the first semester. Results Compared with those in the control group, freshmen in the POP group (a) reported more proactive socialization behaviors (i.e., feedback seeking, relationship building with instructors, general socializing, and positive framing), (b) experienced higher levels of social integration and lower levels of anxiety in the first three and four months after entering the university, and (c) had better academic performance for the first semester. Proactive socialization behaviors were found to mediate the POP's treatment effects on some of the adjustment outcomes. Furthermore, the intervention effects of the POP did not materialize immediately, but rather, emerged over time. Conclusions The findings provide preliminary support for the POP intervention in facilitating freshmen's proactive socialization behaviors and adjustment outcomes. Our findings also suggest the importance of proactivity for freshmen adjustment and academic success.
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Personal initiative training is a promising way to increase entrepreneurial personal initiative, which is a key behavior for successful entrepreneurship. Although personal initiative training has been shown to promote personal initiative, little is known about how this proactive behavior can be maintained over time and what the consequences are. The training transfer literature suggests that training effects usually decline with time. It is not clear, however, which factors contribute to personal initiative maintenance and which benefits go along with personal initiative maintenance. In a randomized controlled field experiment with 912 microentrepreneurs in Lomé, Togo, we investigate the influence of need for cognition - a cognitive factor driving proactive behavior - on personal initiative maintenance after training. In addition, we examine the effect of need for cognition on the well-being consequences of personal initiative maintenance. We show that people high in need for cognition tend to maintain posttraining personal initiative longer than those low in need for cognition. However, contrary to our predictions, need for cognition has no effect on the level of well-being that results from personal initiative maintenance. Our findings contribute to a better understanding of personal initiative and its maintenance and could be used to increase training effectiveness.
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Conference Paper
The aim of the paper is that the success of the Learning Entrepreneurship Game (LE-Game) played for more than hundred times can be explained by the Action Regulation Theory (ART, see Frese cs.). The elements of entrepreneurship learning in LE-Game can be explained by the psychological approach of entrepreneurship in the Action Regulation Theory (ART). As Frese cs argue ‘any theory of entrepreneurship should use active actions as a starting point —entrepreneurship is the epitome of an active agent in the market’, this applies to participants of LE-Game, where each participant is operating as an agent in the market. The aim is also that for Evidence Based Entrepreneurship this entrepreneurship simulation game can be used to explain entrepreneurial successes based on this ART. For example by using panel data of the performance of players in multiple played games at different times and different locations. Thereby gathering robust evidence to answer theoretical questions on learning entrepreneurship. ART is also a theory that can add dynamics to Sarasvathy’s effectuation theory of entrepreneurship as the ART of quilting in “self-effectuation”, which can be applied in LEGame.
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There are more than a billion people who live in poverty (Collier, 2007; Reynolds, 2012). Twenty-one percent of the population in developing countries (1.22 billion people) can only spend $1.25 or below a day in the year 2010 (Olinto, Beegle, Sobrado, and Uematsu, 2013). In addition to poverty, a major problem for developing countries is the high rate of unemployment (The International Labor Office [ILO], 2013). Two thirds of the young population in developing countries was unemployed or worked in irregular employment in the year 2012 (ILO, 2013; UNDESA, 2013). What will aggravate the situation is that many more young people will enter the future job market. In least developed countries 40% of the population was younger than 15 years in 2012, and 20% were aged between 15 and 24 years (UNDESA, 2013). Consequently, many governmental and non-governmental bodies argue that solving the problem of unemployment and fostering employment creation in developing countries is of high importance (ILO, 2013; UNDESA, 2013). A possible approach to address the issue of unemployment is entrepreneurship since research shows that entrepreneurship supports employment creation (Acs, Desai, and Hessels, 2008; Gries and Naudé, 2010; Mead and Liedholm, 1998; Naudé, 2010, 2012; Naudé, Gries, Wood, and Meintjies, 2008). This implies that through promoting entrepreneurship it is possible to contribute to employment creation.