ROCK STEADY [research]

By Ty Burke | Spring 2024

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Over his three-decade career at Notre Dame, Mike Crant has developed an entire field of study.

A thumping beat rose above the clink of glasses and the hum of the crowd, and the sound of rock and roll hung in the smoky haze that filled the room. It was the late 1970s in Orlando, and on stage was a band of six shaggy-haired rockers who weren’t yet old enough to drink — or even perform in the bar legally. But they could sell out a show, so the bar’s owner turned a blind eye.

“We were called Airhead, and we mostly played covers of bands like Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Songs that would now be called ‘classic rock,’ but back then, it was just what was on the radio,” said Mike Crant, then Airhead lead guitarist. 

 “We were pretty good, and we might have had a chance to make it,” he recalled. “I told the guys I would put college on hold for two years if everybody committed to dropping the cover songs and focusing solely on writing and playing original music.”

Even though they were all very talented, the other musicians didn’t buy into Crant’s dreams. They wanted to tour the southeast, play covers and party. 

Crant’s plan fizzled, the band broke up, and he went off to Gainesville to study at the University of Florida. Even though Airhead never made it big, the band’s loss proved to be academia’s gain. Crant didn’t realize it at the time, but his efforts to take his band to the next level displayed a trait that would come to define his academic research — proactivity.

“I had a vision for the future, and I wanted us to change things significantly in order to give us a better chance at success,” he said. “But not everybody appreciates proactive ideas. Some of the guys did do the touring thing, but most of us went to college and got on with our lives. And given the way my career has unfolded, I think that was for the best.” 


A Slow Burn

Forty years on, Crant has traded the unkempt curls of a budding rock star for the tidy ponytail of a professor. A lot more has changed, too. After completing his doctorate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1990, Crant was offered a job at Notre Dame. He accepted, and he’s never looked back. The Notre Dame Professor of Management & Organization was recently appointed as an endowed University chair — Notre Dame’s highest recognition of the impact of a faculty member’s research.

Illustration of a man looking at a sun with a telescopeHe and his wife, Teresa, were both born and raised in the South and always assumed they’d end up there. Neither had ever been so far north before, but they packed up the Subaru hatchback they’d bought at the beginning of Crant’s doctoral studies and drove north up Interstate 75. They raised their children in South Bend and even grew to like the change in seasons — if not the length of winter. Crant never stopped cheering for the University of Florida Gators football team, but he is effusive in his praise of former students who played for the Fighting Irish, like the Super Bowl-winning running back Jerome Bettis (BBA ’22), whom he taught in the early 1990s. 

Over more than three decades, Crant has taught thousands of Mendoza students and become one of the University’s most widely cited scholars. His most influential paper on proactivity was published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior in 1993, but it didn’t get a lot of traction at the time. In the early 2000s, citations began to pick up. By early 2024, Crant’s research had been cited more than 23,000 times and inspired up to eight new streams of research. But even as he was laying the foundation for a new field of study, it wasn’t always obvious it would work out this way.

“When I was a Ph.D. student, my supervisor Tom Bateman and I would meet at the beginning of each semester to identify projects we wanted to work on,” said Crant. “We had been talking about this idea of proactivity, and many people had already said it is important to be proactive, but nobody had really studied it or measured it. It was just assumed proactivity was good. And in the life of a scholar, when you can find a concept that is both important and unstudied, that’s the Holy Grail.” 

Proactivity has since become a significant concept in the field of management and organizational behavior. But even though the idea is routinely deployed by academics and non-academics alike, it is not necessarily straightforward to measure. When Crant and Bateman wanted to create a scale to measure proactivity, they held a marathon brainstorming session in a faculty lounge in Chapel Hill. 

They identified 57 qualities associated with this characteristic, which they whittled down to 35 after eliminating redundancies. Over time, the list shrunk to 17, then 10. Today, many scholars now use a scale that measures just six traits. But what exactly is it that they are seeking to quantify?

“The essence of proactivity is to be an agent of change. To see opportunities and make them happen,” said Crant. “You can think of proactivity as a continuum, with reactive on one end and proactive on the other. On the proactive end of the continuum, people tend to do a lot of things that are very desirable. They have higher job performance. They are viewed as better leaders, better teammates, and more creative. At its essence, proactive people are those that change the environment for the better.” 

Proactivity is partly innate, and there is evidence that it is a personality trait. It has even been argued that it could be a new trait added to the five-factor model of personality, a framework widely used by psychologists to understand personality by measuring the traits of openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism.

Crant cites research identifying a genetic marker associated with proactivity as some of the most fascinating work on the topic undertaken in the past three decades. But he also cautions that proactivity is not solely innate, and there is powerful evidence that it can be learned. Proactivity is a function of both a person’s predisposition and the choices they make in the situation they are in. He notes that the top performers actually display a mix of proactive and reactive traits. After all, it is important to meet a job’s standard requirements and faithfully implement key initiatives. But proactive behaviors are frequently what get people noticed — and can help them get ahead.

“People say that proactivity is a buzzword, that it’s trivial. When people say they wish they’d been more proactive, what they often mean is they wish they’d started sooner, so that they’d made a better product by the time the deadline came,” said Bateman. “But the fact is that proactivity is profound. It is about changing the future. While most human activity is driven by past activity and current circumstances, proactivity is about looking forward and trying to create futures that are better than they would be otherwise.” 


The Double-Edged Sword

The contemporary work environment is fast-changing and dynamic. Many employers recognize that proactive people can help manage uncertainty and anticipate shifts in circumstances. But like just about everything else, proactivity has a time and a place. 

Mike Crant“The world of work still values workers who do exactly what they are told to do. There is a benefit to being reactive and meeting your quota,” Crant said. “The best performers are actually both proactive and reactive. They are just not reactive all the time. You need to complete your standard tasks, but being a source of ideas is what gets you noticed. That is what gets you promoted, and there is evidence that career success is associated with a proactive orientation — things like salary, career progression and job satisfaction.”

But proactivity is not always positively received. When an employee is proactive and his or her supervisor is not, the supervisor sometimes feels threatened by the change the individual seeks to make. And proactivity is much better suited to some roles than others — as Crant himself discovered when he took on a leadership role in Mendoza’s administration. 

“I definitely have a proactive personality. I am always looking for opportunities to make things better, and that has been extremely valuable as a researcher,” Crant said. 

Proactivity helped Crant obtain resources and build his networks as a researcher. It is exactly what enabled him to identify that proactivity was itself understudied. But his proactivity was much less beneficial during his term as department chair. 

“I got scolded a few times for being a bit of a pain in the neck,” he recalled. “I was coming up with too many ideas, and I was told to tone it down a bit. That is a dark side of productivity. Not everybody likes it, or they only want it in moderation. You can do too much of it.”

That role monopolized Crant’s attention and mental energy, and his research output trailed off even as his earlier work on proactivity was becoming increasingly influential. After his term as chair ended, he struggled to regain his previous form. He was simply not satisfied with the caliber of research he was producing at the time. But connecting with researchers who were breaking new ground in proactivity research led Crant to a research renaissance.

“Other people latched on to this idea, and it became a pretty important concept in the field of management,” said Crant. 

In 2017, Crant attended a seminar on proactive personality at the meetings of the Academy of Management. He was not presenting but was curious to learn about new research happening in the field. He was particularly impressed by one paper. Despite its high quality of evidence, the authors struggled to get it published. The Hong Kong-based researchers invited Crant to help them rewrite it, and thus began a working relationship that continues to this day. His collaborators have even helped take his research to places that would otherwise have been impossible for an American researcher — including the hospitals of Wuhan, China, in the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Mike Crant giving a lecture at the Mendoza College of Business.Crant’s colleagues in Hong Kong obtained data from a time before the mysterious novel coronavirus had even been given a name. Before anyone was certain what COVID-19 was, hospitals in Wuhan were inundated with cases of a serious respiratory illness. Officials ordered that the city’s general hospital become a respiratory hospital overnight. 

The stakes were high and the stressors many. The study sought to determine who was best able to manage this time of crisis. It considered a sample of 200 doctors and nurses to determine which ones thrived in the face of a crisis and which ones crumbled under its weight.

“In particular, our research question was whether proactivity matters. And the answer was yes, absolutely it does. Proactivity was a very strong predictor of job performance and how well health care workers handled their caseload. There was no protocol, so they had to invent it themselves. People needed to be proactive,” said Crant. 

Proactive people also had higher levels of general well-being. They experienced lower levels of stress and were better able to sleep at night. Reactive physicians and nurses experienced panic over the severity of the situation, but proactive ones did not just accept it, they sought to manage it. 

“They figured out a way to make this work such that it fit with their strengths. And that in turn led to greater performance, well-being and resilience,” said Crant. “We learned that proactivity is incredibly important in a time of crisis. Proactive people can handle these situations much more effectively.”


Holding Up a Mirror 

Crant’s research has not focused exclusively on proactivity. He studied drug testing in the workplace when it was an emerging phenomenon and what makes some excuses more effective than others. His research on excuses even scored some national media attention. It was written up in the Wall Street Journal and featured on CBS Sunday Morning in 2014. 

Crant enjoyed the attention to his research, but time and again, he returned his focus to proactivity. And there is a good reason for that: He sees a lot of himself in this work.

“One reason I was so excited about proactivity as a research topic is that it is part of my values and who I am,” said Crant. “I have always had a proactive personality, but it did not occur to me until after we had done this research. At the time, I kept the subject at arm’s length. Then, all of a sudden one day, I was reading the paper we published, and it occurred to me. Wait a minute, I was writing about myself. This is me.”

Illustration by Errata Carmona. Photo by Barbara Johnston.


Mike Crant is the Notre Dame Professor of Management & Organization. He researches workplace dynamics, focusing primarily on proactive personality and behavior at work.

“When There is a Will There is a Way: The Role of Proactive Personality in Combating COVID-19”
Journal of Applied Psychology
Authors: Nancy Yi-Feng Chen (Lingnan University), Michael Crant (University of Notre Dame), Nan Wang (Lingnan University), Yu Kou (Lingnan University)


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