How to Take the Initiative: Part 2

Ownership happens at the point of delegation.

When a manager delegates work to their team member, they’ll discuss What to do, Why they should do it, How they should do it and When they should do it. The more the team member gets to decide about each of the What, Why, How and When, the more ownership they’ll take.

In part 1 of this series of articles, I talked about how defining and redefining outcomes is an essential skill for individuals to take the initiative. 

A customer service representative in a call centre may be delegated the task of answering customer queries (what), getting paid on the number of queries they respond to (why), following a set script for responding to queries (how), and responding to queries that come in during their shift (when). Those outcomes have been set.

But when speaking to a customer, if they find that following the script doesn’t help the customer, then they have a choice; stick to the original outcome (follow the script and risk making the customer mad), or redefine the outcome (drop the script and focus on helping the customer).

When individuals define, and redefine their outcomes, they take the initiative, and they start to take more ownership of their work.

In part 1, I talked about the roles awareness, management and culture play in enabling individuals to take the initiative. But there is also another barrier to taking the initiative:

The Small Picture

Sarah came up to me during the lunch break and showed me a screenshot of her draft email. We were halfway through a communication skills workshop and she wanted my feedback on an email she was about to send her boss asking for a pay-rise.

As I scanned through her email, one line in particular really stood out; “The economy is really bad right now, everything is getting more expensive, so I really need a pay rise”.

Sarah thought that the bad economic situation justified a pay rise. But Sarah was only seeing the small picture.

If she’d have broadened her view, she would have seen a bigger picture. She would have seen that the bad economic situation would be impacting her boss’ business on an even bigger scale, so much so that her boss wouldn’t have enough money to give her a pay-rise.

I advised her to think more about the extra value she can contribute before rewriting that email.

One Small Cog

I’ve found it’s extremely common in big businesses for people to only see the small picture. They work in their individual roles, in their teams, in their functions. They don’t encounter a wide range of different cogs in the whole business, just a few that are directly connected to them. They have their KPIs, which drive their pressure and focus. They spend a lot of time with people of the same function, talking about the same things. They don’t see what people at the top see. And so they only see the small picture.

I’ve observed that in hierarchical cultures, this small picture thinking is exacerbated. Individuals at lower levels of the business are not encouraged, nor welcomed, to think about the bigger picture. They’re not invited into discussions about the bigger picture. They’re expected to stick well within the constraints of their role.

But there’s also another reason people only see the small picture. 

Tunnel Vision

Have you ever noticed that Emergency Exit doors are push doors and not pull? That design makes a lot of sense when you think about it. When people panic, they don’t think, they just act, and so push open the door. If they were to discover that pushing the door didn’t work, then in a panicked state they wouldn’t stop and analyse what’s going on and start pulling it, they’d just keep on pushing.

When we get stressed, we get tunnel vision. Our focus completely narrows. The higher functions of our brain shut down. We become pretty stupid, to be honest.

At the time of writing this, the world is gripped by the Covid-19 Pandemic. The vast majority of people in the world have had their lives significantly disrupted. With this disruption comes a lot of uncertainty, and a lot of stress.

I’ve felt this stress too. My business has been disrupted too. And I feel the tunnel vision setting in when I think about business. Do I focus on finding ways to make money in the short-term? Or do I stick to my long-term plan? Tunnel vision causes me to focus much more on the immediate, short-term. But I have to remind myself that I have longer-term goals. 

And it’s easy for so many of us to get lost in the now, right now. We are in the midst of this disruption. The future is hidden behind a big cloud. The pain, and fear of this moment is overwhelming. So we can only focus on this very moment, and we forget that there is a future waiting for us behind that big cloud.

Another common trigger for tunnel vision is other people.

I worked with one client whose name appearing on my phone screen was enough to trigger stomach pains. The project had not been smooth, I struggled to keep up with their frequently changing expectations. I spent a lot of time thinking sympathetic thoughts about myself, and, well…not-so-sympathetic thoughts about the client!

Tense conflict with other people causes us to narrow our focus. We mostly focus on how terrible the situation is for us, and how terrible a person they are.

One day, I was forced…err…asked to travel to this client’s office and spend a few days working with them for this project. That did not sit well with my stomach. But I was surprised by what happened.

We were coldly civil during the morning, but at lunch she suddenly opened up to me. “Jamie, I hate this project!”. She revealed to me all the pressure she had in her job, all the difficulties she faced managing other peoples’ expectations, and all the reasons the expectations had been constantly changing. She suddenly transformed from a stomach-pain-inducing monster into a human being. And my tunnel vision completely evaporated and I was able to see a bigger picture with all these moving parts.

Eventually we finished the project. It was still a bumpy ride, but that lunch changed everything. I started to look forward to our phone calls, and even became friends with her afterwards.

Broaden the View

We need to see the big picture to see what’s really important. And we need to know what’s really important before we define, or re-define, our outcomes.

For that customer service representative speaking to an angry customer, if they broadened their view they’d be able to see that making that customer happy is far more important than sticking to the script. 

They’d step out from their perspective, and assumptions about their role, and empathise with the customer. They’d dive deep down into that customer’s mind and learn their pains and what they sought to gain. Then they’d float out from there and take a bird’s eye view of the business and analyse how this customers’ feelings will impact the business. They’d then think a bit beyond the now, and think how they want things to be 5 minutes from now, a week from now, a year from now and so on. And then they’d make a decision.

There are several ways of broadening the view.

Zoom Out

Tunnel vision forces us to focus on one particular point in time, normally now. Covid-19, at the time of writing, is forcing billions of people to focus on right now. Right now we have little certainty about the future, and a lot of mounting problems worldwide. It can seem like there is no end in sight. The darkness is overwhelming. But we forget that this too will pass. There have been other far more devastating disasters that our species has lived through. There are so many experts with so much new technology fighting this pandemic very effectively. One day, it will be over.

When we zoom out, we realise that now is not everything. It will pass. That new perspective can offer a sense of relief. It changes our thinking from “What do I do right now?” to “What do I want from my future?”, which opens up many new lines of thought.

Scope Out

We have many roles and goals in life. I am a coach and trainer, a small business owner, a husband, a father, a son and so on. Tunnel vision normally causes us to focus more heavily on just one of those roles or goals. If business is suffering, we focus more on our business role, and may neglect our family roles. If one project is causing a lot of pressure, we may focus too much on that, and ignore other projects.

When we scope out, we ask what other roles or goals would be beneficial to consider in this moment. If our business is suffering, we might remind ourselves that we have a family who loves us and supports us. If I am stuck on one project, I might remind myself that I am also part of a network of people who can help me. 

Deepen Empathy

Arguments normally happen because of a lack of empathy. He said that, therefore I feel this. How dare they say that! They’re so horrible to me! Oh now I feel stressed and upset, they just had to go and ruin my day!

In the midst of an emotional argument, we rarely stop to think “Why did they say that?” and actually seek answers. But if we did stop to think that and seek answers, we’d learn more about what they’re thinking and feeling, and what led to them thinking and feeling those ways, and what pain they were trying to avoid and what they were trying to gain. When we deepen our empathy, we start to see sides of them we can relate to, and we start to see opportunities to repair the relationship and move forwards.

Seek Fresh Perspectives

When exploring new territory, our old perspectives probably won’t be much help. When working on a new project, starting a new job, encountering a new challenge and so on, we may not yet be equipped with the best ways of approaching these. 

During these times, we need to seek fresh perspectives by reaching out to other people and seeking new sources of information. Other people might be able to give us good advice, or share their experience with us. New sources of information can help us learn important new skills that we will need to face these new challenges. It’s a lot like going to a shop and buying tools, clothes, maps and snacks to put in our backpack before we go on a long hike. Fresh perspectives equip us to face new challenges.

One Way is Not Enough

Thinking just about now, or just about one role, or just about ourselves, or just about what we already know, will not help us see what we need to see. When we recognise that we are looking at a situation in only one way, this can be a trigger for us to broaden our view.

Once we broaden our view, we can finally see the things we’re missing, and the new opportunities this situation presents us with. We then know what goals to focus on in this challenging situation, and can finally start taking action towards them.