How to take the initiative: Part 1

I’ve heard many managers complain about employees who didn’t take the initiative. Especially about younger employees fresh from university (for some reason many Universities don’t seem to teach people how to take the initiative).

There may be many reasons for employees not taking the initiative. Lack of experience, lack of motivation, poor working environment, conflicting priorities, organisational culture and so on. For many of these, there’s not always a lot we can do about them. 

But I would like to propose one reason in particular, a reason that we are actually able to manage:

They simply don’t know how to take the initiative.

And I’m going to share with you step by step instructions on how to take the initiative in this series of articles. 

Step 1: Recognise You Can Define, or Re-Define the Outcome

As Xiao Wang locked his car and walked to the customer’s reception, his phone buzzed. “Sorry, running 15 minutes late” said the message from his customer. 

Ok, not a big deal thought Xiao Wang, “I’ll just wait”. And so he sat down in the reception, staring out the window. 

30 minutes later, his customer had still not appeared when he decided to send them a message to check when they would be available to meet. “One more hour” was the reply. 

Xiao Wang shared this story with me a few months later when I was training him. He told me he wasted 90 minutes waiting for the customer before they finally appeared. By that time, Xiao Wang hadn’t eaten any lunch and was so hungry he couldn’t concentrate during the meeting. He asked me; “In this kind of situation, is my only choice to just waste time waiting for the customer?”.

Xiao Wang drove to that meeting with one outcome in mind; “Meet the customer, and hopefully sell to them!”. But when the situation changed, he didn’t change with the situation. If he’d have redefined his outcome, perhaps to “reschedule this meeting to a more convenient time”, he’d have been able to find a better use of his time.

Why don’t they redefine outcomes?

During my time in Asia, I’ve noticed many individuals assume that only their boss or their customer can define the outcomes. For Westerners, it’s easy to frown on this kind of mindset, and point out the authoritarian connotations of such underlying beliefs. But there are many positives to these beliefs, such as societies working together, warm hospitality and people being extremely considerate towards others in certain situations. And we’d be kidding ourselves if we believed there were no Westerners with these kinds of beliefs.

Cultural issues aside, if Xiao Wang was able to redefine outcomes in that moment, he would have been able to make better use of his time, and probably not go hungry as well!

But he didn’t because he didn’t know how to, and more fundamentally; nor did he recognise he actually had that option in the first place.

Xiao Wang is just one example, of countless that I have seen:

  • Customer service reps afraid to go off script
  • Engineers determined to stick to the plan
  • HR Managers following orders
  • Team members afraid to question their boss
  • Middle managers struggling to implement empty strategies
  • General Managers insisting on forcing through unsupported strategies

And so on.

In my experience, most of the time the reason for these issues is simply that the individual does not recognise they have the power to define, or re-define the outcome.

  • Customer service reps could focus on helping the customer as much as possible
  • Engineers could choose to redesign the plan
  • HR Managers could suggest a more thorough needs analysis
  • Team members could ask for more clarity
  • Middle managers could collect feedback and share it upwards
  • General Managers could listen to the workforce instead

And so on. 

But I have also frequently seen one other main reason:

Lack of Power

Sometimes they genuinely do lack the power to re-define outcomes.

Corporate structures tend to promote those who build alliances. You might have great ideas, and be a great performer, but if you don’t have strong support from enough people that matter then you will probably struggle to get promoted.

In most companies this doesn’t turn out to be a massive problem. But in some companies it turns out to be a massive problem. 

When leaders develop too much power, ownership becomes centralised. If subordinates try to redefine outcomes, then leaders who want to hold on to as much power as possible can push back, and even punish those subordinates. 

Eventually, subordinates fear the possible repercussions of re-defining outcomes and cease to do so. When problems arise, or circumstances change, subordinates rigidly wait for orders from above. And then those above start to complain their team members aren’t taking enough ownership. 

I do genuinely believe though that the above issue is not as common and serious as many of us might like to think. 

And if you are a leader reading this and wondering why your team members can’t take more initiative, then the most likely reason is that they simply don’t know how to.

Empowering People to Redefine Outcomes

The very first step to change that, is to let them know that they CAN re-define the outcomes…Within reason of course.

In a previous article, I talked about setting MAD Goals, which stands for Measurable, Achievable and Desirable. When we can clearly picture the outcome (measurable), know what steps we need to take to achieve it (achievable), and feel it will help fulfil our needs (desirable), then we can fully commit to it. 

Another way of thinking of this is What, How, Why. When we set out the measures of success, that’s What. When we create a plan to achieve it, that’s How. When we ensure it fulfils our needs, that’s Why.

For a customer service rep, their outcome might look like this: 

  • What – Solve the customer’s problems
  • How – By following the script
  • Why – They’re paid based on customer satisfaction

If you want your employees to take more ownership, then sit down with them and discuss the different outcomes they are focussing on. Break those down into What, How and Why components and identify which of those components they have the freedom to define or redefine. Discuss when they might need to define or redefine these components.

For example, if the customer service rep discovers the script is not working, then they could redefine the How. Maybe in conversation they realise the customer is frustrated and just needs to vent, so rather than following the script they decide to listen to them instead.

Most of the time you can quite happily leave the How to them, but agree that the What and Why are fixed. But in some extreme cases, they may even need to re-define the What, or even the Why.

For example, many HR Managers receive requests for training from various managers within the company. Their outcome might look a bit like this:

  • What – Provide Jim’s team with communication skills training
  • How – Find a professional training vendor
  • Why – Because Jim’s team complain they haven’t received any training since they started working here

Rather than follow orders, the HR Manager might want to sit down with Jim and his team and dig a bit deeper into why they’re really asking for training. Maybe they just want to spend more time getting to know each other, and actually they don’t need training. That completely changes the Why, which consequently would change the What and How as well.

Build a Norm of Discussing Outcomes

Defining and re-defining outcomes is the core step for taking the initiative. It’s a great skill to develop in your team members if you want them to start taking more ownership. And a simple way to develop this skill is to sit down with them on a frequent basis, discuss the outcomes they are working towards, break those down into What, How and Why components, and discuss which components are fixed and when to flex the others.

Building a norm of discussing outcomes is probably the simplest way of getting your team to take more initiative.

But of course, it’s not always that simple. Sometimes we encounter massive disruptions, and it’s not so easy to define a new outcome because we don’t even know what’s happening anymore. And other times the outcome is not the issue in the first place and we need to do other things. I’ll cover other approaches to taking the initiative over the next series of articles.

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