World Class Faculty & Research / October 15, 2015

Creating a Culture of Self-Starters

SMITH BRAIN TRUST — Companies in which employees feel empowered to solve problems on their own, rather than simply follow rules, outperform peers where that doesn't happen — and employees at such companies feel a sense of self-mastery, which improves morale. But can you create such a culture — and, if so, how?

There are at least two paths to building a company of self-starters, suggests new research by Hui Liao, the Smith Dean’s Professor in Leadership and Management at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. Liao and co-authors studied the workplace cultures at 22 different hotels that were part of the same European chain.

Strong human-resources programs were one answer. The data showed that individual hotels that strongly emphasized self-initiative in their human-resources programs indeed created a culture of initiative. Those effective human resource programs hired self-starters, trained people to tackle problems and made sure people who solved  customers' problems without being told to were rewarded in their paychecks.

Liao and her authors also hypothesized that, regardless of what human resources departments did, departmental leaders would make a difference, that front-line supervisors at hotels who encouraged employees to work autonomously could improve the initiative culture even further. But this second hypothesis turned out to be only partly true: Departmental leaders’ empowering behaviors made a difference in "initiative culture" only when human resources efforts were thin or non-existent.

The authors had anticipated the two approaches to inspiring employees to reinforce and build on each other. Instead, one seemed to substitute for the other.

While that came as a surprise, it could be good news for enterprises that can't afford a thorough human resources system. "Having a fully fledged human resources system that is supportive of individual initiative is terrific, but it can be costly," she says. "Our research says that in cases when such a system doesn't exist yet or is difficult to implement, for example in start-ups or small firms, having an empowering leader who is good at delegating authority, keeping people informed, involving people in decision making, and coaching people to solve problems on their own can compensate."

"Organizations can adopt either one or the other (approach)," she and her colleagues write, depending on which is more cost-effective. Or, if a human resource program is weak in this area, managers “could jump into the breach."

The research, which has been accepted for publication at the Journal of Applied Psychology, involved having members of the hotels' executive committees report the human resources practices; having front-line employees report their own attitudes toward proactive behavior and their perceptions of the department’s initiative culture; and having the supervisors rate the employees’ personal-initiative behaviors. Liao and her co-authors ended up with data from 124 executive committee members, 664 employees and 260 supervisors.

Previous research has found that self-starters tend to display three main characteristics: confidence in their abilities ("can do"); intrinsic motivation ("reason to"); and engagement with their work ("energized to"). This study found that "can do" was the most powerful determinant of initiative-taking behavior.

"What It Takes to Get Proactive: An Integrative Multi-level Model of the Antecedents of Personal Initiative," by Hui Liao, of the Smith School, with coauthors Ying Hong, of Fordham University, Steffen Raub, of the Ecole Hoteliere de Lausanne, and Joo Hun Han, of Rutgers University, has been accepted at the Journal of Applied Psychology.


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About the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business

The Robert H. Smith School of Business is an internationally recognized leader in management education and research. One of 12 colleges and schools at the University of Maryland, College Park, the Smith School offers undergraduate, full-time and flex MBA, executive MBA, online MBA, business master’s, PhD and executive education programs, as well as outreach services to the corporate community. The school offers its degree, custom and certification programs in learning locations in North America and Asia.

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