Wednesday, April 13, 2022

by Tom Snee
Employee turnover is an expensive problem for firms, and a new study from the University of Iowa Tippie College of Business finds more proactive employees are more likely to leave for a new job out of frustration with office politics, lack of resources, red tape, unclear work roles, and other workplace hindrances.

At the same time, the study from associate professor of management and entrepreneurship Eean Crawford found proactive people are also more likely to be even more motivated by responsibility, complex tasks, or even the pressure of deadlines.

“Our research suggests that proactive individuals’ capacity to respond positively to some types of work stress may also lead them to react particularly negatively if the stressors are perceived as meaningless obstacles that seem impossible to remove instead of meaningful opportunities to effect positive change,” the researchers wrote.

Given the high costs associated with employee turnover, the researchers said it’s important for firms to reduce those hindrances that employees perceive to be a lack of employer support, and reduce frustration among proactive, high-producing employees.


Researchers surveyed 256 architects about their stress and work experience, choosing that field because the work is often filled with frustrations such as zoning regulations, construction limitations, and picky clients who keep making changes.

The higher the person identified as proactive, the more emotional exhaustion and frustration they reported at hindrances that they perceived to be a lack of organizational support, and the more likely they were to think about leaving the job.

And the frustration lingered, with some reporting it had an impact on decisions to leave their jobs as many as 2.5 years later.

While employees who were less proactive also reported frustration with obstacles, the study found they were less likely to think about quitting.


—Workplace frustration can be mitigated if the employee believes their employer is helping them address their frustration and offering more support. They can do this, for instance, by removing the obstacles, or adding more positive challenges.

“Managers should be going around asking ‘what is getting in your way and how can I get rid of it?’” said study co-author Crawford. “To the extent mangers learn of obstacles and can remove them, remove them.”

—If managers are unable to reduce the hindrances for everyone, they might focus on removing the obstacles that frustrate their most proactive employees.

—For obstacles that cannot be easily removed, Crawford said research suggests employers can mitigate frustration by managing expectations (“This is how things are for now, unfortunately”), validating their frustrations (“I totally agree with how you feel”), and making long-term plans to change things for the better.

—For firms unfortunately plagued not only with obstacles but with managers who have little willingness to remove them, Crawford said they may need to think about recruiting people who are a better fit for the organization. The turnover cost of highly proactive employees may outweigh whatever gains those employees provide during their employment tenure.

The study, “For Better and Worse: How Proactive Personality Alters the Strain Responses to Challenge and Hindrance Stressors,” was published in the journal Organizational Science. The study team included Crawford, Brady Firth of Portland State University, and study leader Jordan Nielsen, a Tippie College of Business doctoral graduate now teaching at Purdue University.

MEDIA CONTACT: Tom Snee, 319-384-0010 (o); 319-541-8434 (c);