Taking Initiative: It’s the Sign of a Healthy, and Highly Engaged, Workforce

When you believe in what you’re doing and use your imagination and initiative, you can make a difference.” — Sam Dash, American law professor and chief council of the Senate Watergate Hearings 

For decades — in article after article, book after book — business and motivational writers have urged you to take more initiative in your work.

They tell you it’s the only real way to become 100 percent committed to your organization and “own” your job. High engagement ensures high productivity, as long as you make sure you maintain a healthy work-life balance.

I think most business leaders genuinely believe this.

But we must be doing something wrong, because time and time again, pollsters point out that fewer than 35 percent of white collar employees are fully engaged, with another 50 percent not engaged and 17-19 percent actively disengaged. Those last few may not hate their jobs, but they certainly don’t like them enough to care about doing those jobs well.

The bitter truth

For 2014, the engagement figures stand at 31.5 percent engaged, 51 percent not engaged, and 17.5 percent actively disengaged. While the numbers have improved in recent years — engagement has risen steadily, jumping two (2) percentage points just since 2013 — something obviously remains broken here.

Experts have cited numerous possible reasons for low engagement levels, from task overload to limited thinking, and most seem reasonable. But rarely do they actually ask the workers why they rein in their initiative, so the experts miss two important reasons.

  • First, many people work because they have to, not because they love their jobs.
  • Second, many workers refuse to take initiative because when they have done so in the past, they’ve been slapped down. It only takes one harsh lesson for a worker to stop trying.

Getting employees to take a chance

This holds true even in knowledge work, where leaders supposedly prize initiative. While things continue to improve, it hasn’t been that long since the Great Recession and the prior “Autocrat Era,” as I think of it, when many managers seemed to view a job as a privilege.

To some extent that’s still true, with “at will” employment remaining common in North America.

Furthermore, it’s too easy to make mistakes when taking initiative, even where leaders truly value resourcefulness. Micromanagers still haunt the workplace, and workers still get chastised for taking even a little initiative. In some cases, an error in judgement or stepping on someone else’s toes can cost you a dream job.

Is it any wonder many workers don’t want to chance taking initiative, even when they can and should? Where’s the dividing line between acceptable initiative and censure?

Categorically speaking, I see three main levels of initiative: Boss, Team, and Self:

Consult the Boss

If initiated without the proper permissions or consideration, some changes may upset the apple cart someone else already has in motion, may cause the company harm, or step on the toes of another person higher in the hierarchy who’s sensitive about a project.

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Or, it may simply make someone look bad if it’s something they should have and could have easily done already (politics matters, like it or not). So if your idea crosses a department boundary, it might be wise to check with your manager first. Then you may still want to approach those on other teams it might affect.

Check with the Team

The same things apply here as in the preceding category, though on a smaller scale. Someone may already be working on a fix to your problem, or may plan to. Another may already be involved on a certain aspect of a new project.

Someone else on the team may feel they own an issue, and you shouldn’t take action without their input. Other team members may simply believe the change isn’t necessary or even counterproductive.

Before moving unilaterally to make a change, email your team, asking for their input and to let you know right away if there’s a reason you shouldn’t move forward.

Just Do It

Nike’s three little words include anything left after you apply the first two categories. If the issue applies only to you, just do it. If someone on the team needs to take up the task or challenge (five people are emailed, hoping someone will do it) but no one has, just do it.

If you’re up again a time crunch or there’s a crisis, just do it and explain later.

The Bottom Line

Like all other things in business, taking initiative is a calculated risk. Better to act and take a risk than sit there and do nothing. If you get chastised, remember Admiral Grace Hopper’s famous adage and beg forgiveness, especially if you didn’t ask permission first.

This was originally published on Laura Stack’s The Productivity Pro blog.

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