"Use your initiative."
How many times did your teacher say that to you at school? Or perhaps it was a university professor's favorite line? And I'm sure we've all read "Must be able to demonstrate initiative" in pretty much every job advertisement since then.
Of course, we all know that thinking for ourselves and being proactive is important. But "showing initiative" can mean so much more…
Imagine a process-focused, inward-looking team that pays little attention to what's going on around it, or people who just wait for the clock to strike 5 p.m. Perhaps you've worked within a team that went to pieces when the unexpected happened, or even a boss who wanted complete control and refused to delegate. All it takes is a little initiative, and these people can start to think for themselves and rediscover their spark.
In the past, I've known teams whose members have been afraid to use their initiative. They were worried about taking risks, not following processes, or "breaking the rules." They tended to do things "the way they've always been done," and there was little interest in continuous improvement. In short, they seemed like pretty uninspiring groups to work with!
Of course, taking the initiative isn't appropriate for some jobs. Imagine roles with defined tasks that need to be completed in precise sequences, or customer service positions that have strict rules and policies. Taking the initiative here could be disastrous! However, in the right roles, I think that the rules are there to be broken… sometimes.
Don't get me wrong, I don't go around causing havoc, bypassing processes, or ignoring instructions. Rather, I believe that if you can achieve your goals quicker and more effectively, or you can avoid a crisis, by bending the rules (provided there aren't any negative repercussions), then why not?
Let me give you an example.
When I worked in book publishing, my team often worked to strict deadlines, which were closely linked to book launch event dates. Relatively early in my career, I was lucky enough to work on a particularly important book… so, of course, everything needed to be perfect.
We worked through the editing, design and production processes, and everything was going smoothly. However, when it came to printing, things started to go wrong. The print company had double-booked our slot, which threw a spanner in the works of our carefully timed plans. Try to imagine a book launch without the book, and you'll understand why we were worried!
So, we took decisive action and "broke the rules." We decided it wasn't worth the risk of the printers not delivering the books on time, and my boss and I took time out during work to travel to the warehouse to collect them in person. By doing this, we avoided the possibility of them not arriving, and reduced the stress of waiting to see whether they would or not! Ultimately, we ensured the books made it to the launch by breaking the rules... but we only did it sometimes.
If my boss hadn't encouraged me to break the rules and take the initiative, our successful book launch might have been a disaster! In our new article, Fostering Initiative in Your Team, we discuss how you can encourage your people to show initiative, and when it is and isn't appropriate. When you do this, you'll have a team that can react to problems and changes, and think on its feet. And you'll be able to delegate more of your work and free up some time!
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