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May 9, 2023

Seeking Information at Work: How Employers Can Promote Worker Proactivity

While labor markets may finally be starting to loosen, the historically tight hiring situation of the past year (and the Great Resignation) has spurred further conversation around what workers want from their jobs – and how employers can meet those wants. One set of research points to the practice of fostering proactivity and engagement; workforces with these characteristics tend to score better on both performance and satisfaction metrics. In this vein, a recent meta-analysis from UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School Professor Elad Sherf alongside co-authors (KFBS PhD candidates Natalie Croitoru and Terence McElroy) examines the literature on a form of information and assistance gathering at work called seeking behavior – which can take numerous forms and has thus been studied across a variety of contexts. In aggregating and analyzing the existing evidence, Sherf and his co-authors are able to speak to why seeking behavior matters, as well as how it can be harnessed to the benefit of both employers and employees.

What are “seeking” behaviors, what do they look like at work, and what are their benefits?

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Seeking behavior refers to a deliberate attempt by individuals to obtain information or assistance from others. It can take various forms, such as feedback seeking, information seeking, help seeking, advice seeking or input seeking.

Seeking behaviors can benefit employees as they try to “do things right,” or perform well on their jobs. For instance, employees can seek information on how to complete their tasks given the norms of the specific workplace, seek corrective feedback, request help in correctly completing their tasks, or seek advice on the best way to fit in and make positive impressions given existing demands.

Seeking behaviors can also benefit employees as they try to “do things differently,” or perform creatively. For example, employees can seek information needed to generate novel approaches to achieve goals, seek feedback on new ideas, request help to solve problems uniquely, or seek advice on new opportunities or the redesign of their jobs.

Moreover, seeking behaviors can enhance learning and development, build positive relationships with colleagues and supervisors, and reduce stress and anxiety by addressing uncertainties and challenges in the workplace.

How can managers and employers create an environment that allows workers to innovate and create? How does seeking behavior factor in?

Seeking behaviors are essential for performance and creativity, and while some seeking activities are driven by differences in personality traits, the work environment plays a critical role. To create an environment that fosters seeking behavior, there are two pathways that managers and employers could focus on.

The first pathway involves enhancing the perceived benefits of seeking. It’s not always apparent that individuals seek information or assistance, especially if the activity is not public. For instance, if my co-worker sought information that provided them an insight necessary for high performance, I am less likely to be exposed to the process (i.e., the seeking behavior) than to the outcome. As a result, I may think that they were able to do it on their own.

My research revealed that the belief in the benefits of seeking is a stronger predictor of seeking behaviors than any perceived costs such as embarrassment. However, managers and employers often neglect to highlight or advertise the value of seeking information or assistance from others. To address this, managers and employers could:

  • Highlight successful examples of seeking information and assistance. Share stories of colleagues who have sought information or assistance and achieved positive outcomes, such as solving a challenging problem or improving a project’s results. This can demonstrate the value of seeking information and assistance and encourage others to follow suit.
  • Reinforce the connection between seeking information and success of individuals and teams. For example, highlighting how a specific act of seeking information or assistance led to improved decision making, better outcomes and increased productivity can help individuals understand how these behaviors can benefit them personally. Leaders could also provide examples of how seeking information or assistance has helped them in their careers.
  • Recognize and celebrate proactive seeking activities. For example, employees who actively seek out information or assistance may be recognized for their efforts and celebrated during team meetings or gatherings.

The second pathway focuses on interpreting work uncertainty and demanding situations as challenges rather than threats. When employees interpret their work environment as an opportunity for growth and learning, they are more likely to seek information and assistance from others rather than wait until the situation clears up.

Imagine a researcher conducting an experiment that failed. They may be unsure where to go next and even worried about their jobs. In discussing the failure with others, however, they may realize that there is learning in the failure that holds the key to solving the problem they were working on. If they see their failure as a threat, they may never seek that feedback.

Consequently, it could be beneficial for employers to:

  • Regularly discuss continuing uncertainties and demands to collectively reframe them as learning opportunities. For example, managers can hold weekly meetings where employees share their biggest uncertainties, and the rest of the team tries to reframe the situation as an opportunity.
  • Provide resources and support. Research suggests that interpreting demanding situations as a threat vs. challenge depends on whether employees feel they have enough resources to deal with the situation. Resources could be tangible (e.g., money, time) but also intangible (social support, confidence). Regularly checking in with employees to figure out what resources they may lack can ensure that when they encounter uncertainty, they will likely interpret it as a challenge or opportunity. 

Are there ways employers can encourage seeking behaviors in a workforce that might be working remotely, or else one that is geographically dispersed?

In my paper I found that seeking behaviors are strongly influenced by perceived benefits and to a lesser extent by costs relating to impression management. However, a third, distinct category relates to the perceived effort of seeking behaviors. Such efforts are often the result of physical work design. For instance, if my boss works in another building and I can ask them for feedback only if I spend 20 minutes physically going there, I am going to seek feedback less frequently.

With remote work, effort costs are magnified, making it more challenging to seek feedback or assistance. Opportunities for spontaneous interactions are reduced, and initiating informal meetings may require more effort, particularly for remote workers.

As such, in addition to the above recommendations that apply to remote and co-located work situations, for employers that have a large remote contingency, the focus should be on reducing the cost of effort.

To encourage seeking behaviors among remote workers or geographically dispersed teams, in addition to the general recommendations above, employers could take the following actions:

  • Deliberately set aside time in virtual spaces after meetings to allow remote workers to seek additional information or assistance.
  • Create online channels focused specifically on seeking information or feedback, such as dedicated Slack or Teams channels or email lists.
  • Add dedicated opportunities for sharing information or feedback in every virtual gathering. For instance, a manager could start a weekly staff meeting by randomly assigning people to virtual break rooms and encouraging them to share and ask for information or feedback.
  • Check in with employees about their preferred timing forum, and method of communication, and ensure that communication systems are set up to support their unique needs.

Some might view seeking behaviors as unproductive, in the sense that they encourage workers to solicit input and try new approaches, as opposed to performing tasks in a predictable and routine manner. How would you respond to this concern? Are there ways that an organization can balance these two needs?

The concern that seeking behaviors may be unproductive because they distract workers from their tasks is valid. However, my research suggests that seeking behaviors are generally low-frequency behaviors that employees don’t perform regularly. Therefore, the benefits of seeking in terms of performance and creativity may outweigh the costs. In most situations, seeking additional insights or timely information can change the trajectory of performance by making the work more efficient or taking it in a novel direction. While there may be tasks or work environments where seeking is less beneficial, such as routine tasks performed by well-trained employees, my intuition is that most people underutilize the ability to seek information and assistance from others.

Furthermore, the tension between the exploitation of current resources and the exploration of new resources and capabilities is a continuing issue for organizations. While exploitation may dominate in the short term, organizations focused on long-term survival deliberately set up ways to engage in exploration of new opportunities. Encouraging seeking behaviors can lead to creative outcomes, generating long-term benefits for organizations.

Can seeking behaviors at work combat the increased job dissatisfaction and attrition observed as part of the recent Great Resignation?

It’s important to note that there’s no simple solution to the Great Resignation. Employee attrition is a complex issue, and there are various factors that contribute to it. However, our research shows a negative correlation between seeking behaviors and turnover, as well as a positive correlation between seeking behaviors and job satisfaction. This suggests that employees who engage in seeking behaviors are more likely to be invested in their work and less likely to leave the organization.

It’s possible that seeking behaviors and job satisfaction have a causal relationship, but it could also be the case that more satisfied employees are simply more likely to seek advice and help. Nonetheless, seeking behaviors have been recognized as a tool that employees can use to better understand their work requirements and increase their fit with the organization.

In addition, seeking behaviors contribute to job crafting, which refers to the ways employees adapt their work demands and environments to better fit their preferences. By promoting a sense of fit and allowing employees to craft jobs that better meet their needs, seeking behaviors can contribute to work satisfaction and retention.

Overall, I would recommend encouraging employees to engage in seeking behaviors – such as seeking feedback, information, and assistance – as part of a broader approach to ensure satisfaction and retention.

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