Make things happen!
"There are three types of people in this world: those who make things happen, those who watch things happen, and those who wonder what happened." - Mary Kay Ash, American businesswoman
"Initiative is doing the right thing without being told."
- Victor Hugo, French writer
Helen's manager was due to meet with her and her co-workers to discuss their role in the next product roll-out. Unfortunately, he's been snowed in at an airport on the other side of the country, and his cell phone battery is dead. The deadline is tight, and the team can't afford to waste a day because of his absence.
Helen was the last person to talk to her boss before he left, and he'd outlined who was going to be doing what on the project. So, Helen takes command, and, within an hour, everyone on the team has their preliminary tasks mapped out.
When her boss arrives in the office three days later, he's impressed and grateful that Helen took responsibility to get the project moving. If she hadn't, several valuable days would have been lost.
Do you take initiative like Helen? That is, do you make things happen for yourself and for your team? Or, do you wait for someone else to tell you what to do?
People who have initiative and make things happen are highly valued in the workplace. But, what is it? And how can you develop it? We'll be covering both of these questions in this article.
Researchers Michael Frese and Doris Fay define initiative as "work behavior characterized by its self-starting nature, its proactive approach, and by being persistent in overcoming difficulties that arise in pursuit of a goal."
When you show initiative, you do things without being told; you find out what you need to know; you keep going when things get tough; and you spot and take advantage of opportunities that others pass by. You act, instead of reacting, at work.
Most of us have seen initiative in action. Maybe you've seen a young manager who fills her boss's shoes when she's sick and the rest of the team is unsure what to do; or perhaps you've seen a team member proposing a process improvement plan to the executive board.
Initiative has become increasingly important in today's workplace. Organizations want employees who can think on their feet and take action without waiting for someone to tell them what to do. After all, this type of flexibility and courage is what pushes teams and organizations to innovate, and to overcome competition.
The good news is that initiative is a skill that you can develop. You can do this by following these steps:
Research* has shown that people who have a long-term career plan are more likely to take initiative. Professionals who know what they want and where they want to go are far more likely to show initiative at work, especially when the action or decision will help them further their career goals. Develop this plan.
Also, make sure that you understand your job, and your team and your organization's purpose, so that you know what you should be achieving. See our articles on Job Analysis, Team Charters and Mission and Vision Statements for more on this.
Once you know what you want to achieve, integrate your career goals with your personal goals, so that you have something to work towards. (In your personal life, the key to developing initiative is to set clear personal goals, and then to work steadily towards achieving them.)
It can take courage and a strong sense of self to show initiative, especially if you fear that people may disagree with your actions or suggestions.
For instance, set small goals so you can achieve some quick wins. And push yourself to do (positive) things that you'd otherwise be scared to do - this will not only help you build your self-confidence, but it will help you build the courage to accomplish bigger, scarier tasks later on.
Some people have a real fear of speaking up, or of taking any action that's not yet authorized by the leadership team, because they're afraid of failure or rejection. If this sounds like you, see our article on overcoming fear of failure to learn how to manage your fears.
People who show initiative often do so by spotting and acting on opportunities that their colleagues or leaders have not noticed. They're curious about their organization and how it works, and they keep their minds open to new ideas and new possibilities.
You should always be on the lookout for areas in your organization that could use improvement. To spot opportunities and potential improvements, consider the following from the problem-finding stage of the Simplex Process:
Get into the habit of looking for these things - perhaps set a repeating appointment in your diary to remind you to look for them; and, when things go wrong, think about how you can fix them.
Imagine that you've come up with a creative way of breaking through a bottleneck in your customer service process. Before you head straight to your boss with your idea, stop and do some homework. Think about the costs and risks associated with the idea. (Tools like Cost/Benefit Analysis, Risk Analysis and Impact Analysis will help here.)
Where the cost of the project and the consequences of something going wrong are small, consider going ahead with your idea directly, while keeping your boss "in the loop" (how far you should do this depends on your relationship with your boss). Where risks or costs are more significant, consider preparing a business case, and ask for authorization before you go ahead.
You've already shown initiative by coming up with a solution. Make sure that you follow this through by doing your homework on the idea. The more you have researched and considered your ideas, the higher your chances of success will be.
Persistence is the art of moving forward even when you encounter inertia or difficulty. People who show initiative often encounter difficulties and setbacks along the way, so rational persistence (where you listen to, consider, and appropriately modify your direction depending on other people's input) is essential if you want to achieve what you've set out to do.
When you're persisting with your idea, you'll find things much easier if you learn how to manage change effectively - this can often make the difference between success and failure for a project. It's also helpful to learn how to open closed minds, since people may already have an opinion on a subject before you even start presenting your idea.
While it's important to take initiative, it's just as important to be wise in the way that you use it. In some situations, it can be inappropriate to take initiative, and people who generate too much extra work for other people can upset others.
For instance, you might have worked with a colleague who was "gung-ho" about every idea. He was constantly pushing the team, and your boss, to lead the next project or to implement a new idea. However, some of his ideas were naïve, his persistence in taking the initiative often crossed the line into aggressiveness, and perhaps the team felt that he "rocked the boat" too much at a time when other team members were overloaded.
This is why it's so important to learn good decision-making techniques. The more you enhance these skills, the better you'll be at judging when an idea is good, and it isn't. This way, you can develop a reputation both for initiative and for good judgment - an invaluable combination!
You'll also want to develop your emotional intelligence skills. It's helpful to know how to read the emotions of others. This sensitivity can help you further decide when to take initiative, and when it's best to let things be.
Initiative has become increasingly important in today's workplace. You show initiative when you act without being told what to do, persist in the face of inertia and difficulty, and see your idea through to a successful conclusion.
There are six steps you can take to develop your own initiative.
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Frese, M. et al (1997) 'The Concept of Personal Initiative: Operationalization, Reliability, and Validity in Two German Samples,' Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, No 70. (Available here.)
Campbell, D.J. (2000) 'The Proactive Employee,' The Academy of Management Executive, Vol. 14, No 3. (Available here.)
Frese, M. and Fay, D. (2001) 'Personal Initiative: An Active Performance Concept for Work in the 21st Century,' Research in Organization Behavior, Vol. 23.