How Do Employees Regulate Their Work-Related Behavior?

By Cheuk Yue Wan, Georgiana Darau |

Every action is a goal-oriented behavior and it needs to be regulated. Action regulation theory explains how individuals regulate their behavior through cognitive processes such as goal development, planning and feedback processing. But why is this important to organizations ?

According to the scientific literature, sequence of action regulation includes different phases that have to be followed when engaging in a new behavior. The sequence and its importance for the organization are presented as follows:

1. Goal development and selection

We know that goals are either internally generated and self selected or assigned. Individuals can develop goals based on wishes or some are told by others to pursue certain goals. Developing certain goals motivate employees to expend effort because they provide employees with a standard for comparison with the current state and action progress. In other words, employees need to select their goals in order to define what is needed to be done to reach that selected goal. Managers and coworkers can facilitate the pursuit of multiple goals by assisting employees with goal prioritization and selection, and by helping out when goal progress is slow or when goal-relevant resources are lacking.

2. Mapping the environment (Orientation)

Once a goal has been established, individuals orient themselves in the work environment by searching for action-relevant information, and by detecting signals that enable them to make predictions about successful goal attainment. Individuals need to develop adequate, action-relevant mental representation of the goal and its boundary conditions. Managers and coworkers can assist employees during the orientation phase by providing employees with relevant, clear, and structured information about tasks, goals, and the goal context.

3. Planning (Plan Development and Selection)

This phase involves the creation of and selection among different plans that are instrumental in attaining a goal. Detailed planning is an effective strategy in most work contexts. According to the theory, the so-called ‘best-workers’ or ‘superworkers’ possess more elaborate and proactive task-oriented plans that allow them to better deal with and learn from errors and other challenging situations. These workers can actively manage different situations based on their long-term planning, whereas ineffective workers produce plans that are not tied adequately to the goal and they have problems choosing among several plans.

4. Monitoring of execution

People need to monitor their actions. This involves a comparison between the goal and the associated plan and the actual execution of behavior. During execution, employees can respond more or less flexibly to unexpected situations, adapt their goals and plans, and coordinate action efficiently with regard to the time available and other, possibly competing, tasks.

5. Processing of feedback

Feedback is extremely important because it enables learning which types of plans can be most successfully used in the future. Action regulation theory presumes that positive feedback is mainly beneficial in terms of maintaining or repeating behavior, whereas negative feedback is considered a more important predictor of learning and personal development, as long as it is task-related and carries clear information. Thus, when giving feedback, managers and coworkers should ensure that the information they want to convey is clear, well structured, and task-related.

Action Regulation Theory in practice

You may ask yourself how can action regulation theory contributes to improving organizational performance?

Recent research shows that, action regulation theory can be fruitfully applied to understand important phenomena in work and organizational contexts. Thus, here are some examples of why this theory is important for practice:

• Occupational strain and well-being

Job design should support an active approach by providing challenging tasks and control, while reducing the stressors. Action regulation theory suggests that action regulation at high levels is more difficult and effortful. But if there are too few challenges, action is incomplete and it leads to feelings of emptiness and boredom. Therefore it is necessary that work is challenging enough to engage in both high as well as low levels of regulation. Research shows that interruptions in the routinized work lead to decline in well-being, but at the same time, employees expend their high level of effort following interruptions and develop action strategies that allow them to deal effectively with the interruptions.

• Reciprocal influences between personality and work

Action regulation theory argues that personality consists of generalized tendencies to act. Work situation produces norms, signals and cognitive primes for certain behavior that can also be automatized. Once they are automatized, they may produce changes in personality. It is likely that work increases behavioral tendencies that are already present prior to entering such a workplace. Research shows that individuals with low levels of agreeableness were more likely to join the military, and that time spent in the military led to further decreases in agreeableness over time. Work characteristics may increase proactive personality which in time will decrease organizational constraints.

• Innovation

Innovative work requires dynamic reciprocal influences between higher level of intellectual regulation and lower level of psychomotor operations. In other words, routinization at work saves time and cognitive resources and, therefore, may free resources that can be used to develop new and useful ideas. Results show that routinization predicts creativity and innovation at work, above and beyond work characteristics. Moreover, ambidextrous leadership theory shows that leaders who engage daily in both opening behavior (encouraging experimentation) and closing behavior (emphasizing goal achievement) was associated with the highest level of employee innovation.

• Teamwork

Team action is sequentially and hierarchically organized. A team performance is determined by the team’s action-oriented mental model containing task-relevant knowledge as well as by the extent to which the group structure fits the task structure. Teams that have an ‘ideal communication cycle’ which includes multiple phases of the action regulation sequence ranging from goal development and orientation to evaluation of feedback have a higher productivity. In order to enhance team performance, managers and organizations should facilitate employees’ engagement in guided reflection and effective task related communication.

• Career development

Action regulation theory suggests that individuals can regulate their career development by proactively setting and pursuing career goals. Individuals’ goals and planning related to continuing education predicted participation in vocational retraining two years later. Moreover, career management intervention based on action regulation theory increased employees’ self-knowledge, career goal commitment, and career plan quality which predicted career self-management behaviors and career satisfaction 10 months later.

• Successful aging at work

Automatized tasks may result in ‘skill traps’ among older employees. Certain well learned skills might not be relevant anymore and the high level of routinization makes it difficult to adjust quickly to new task and the task environment. Researchers conceptualized SOC strategies (selection, optimization and compensation) which can lead to successful adaptation and well-being because these help individuals make the most of their increasingly limited resources across the lifespan. These self-report scales assess employees’ general tendencies to make use of the strategies in different domains. Study shows that older employees in low complexity jobs benefited from SOC use with regard to their perceived occupational opportunities in the future. Thus, individuals need to both actively shape their environment and adjust to unavoidable losses and constraints in order to age successfully.



Zacher, H., & Frese, M. (2018). Action regulation theory: Foundations, current knowledge and future directions. In Ones, D. S., Anderson, N., Viswesvaran, C., & Sinangil, H. K. (Eds.). The SAGE Handbook of Industrial, Work & Organizational Psychology, 2v: Personnel Psychology and Employee Performance; Organizational Psychology; Managerial Psychology and Organizational Approaches. (pp. 122-144). SAGE Publications.

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