Inspiring initiative

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Two weeks ago we received a late spring snowstorm that left several inches of snow on our back deck. Because my teenage son was hosting a prom after-party that evening, I approached him at 2:30pm and asked, “Why are you gaming? You have pictures at 5:00 and you’re hosting a party tonight. There’s three or four inches of snow on the deck. How are you going to use the furniture and firepit tonight if everything’s covered in snow?”

Annoyed, Cole snapped, “All you have to do is ask!”



In that moment—probably because I’ve been exquisitely trained by our three teenagers—I recognized that Cole was shifting the responsibility for the snow removal onto me. It’s as if he was saying, “If you had remembered to ask me to do it, I would have done it. It’s not my fault it’s not done.”

Remembering my training, I replied, “No, Cole, all you have to do is offer.”

This exchange got me thinking about the ongoing challenge we have—whether as parents, peers, or supervisors—to inspire others to offer to take action rather than wait to be told; to take initiative rather than appear indifferent toward what needs to be done. In the workplace, in particular, there are a number of actions that you can take to nudge employees to expend discretionary effort in the moment of choice:



  1. Share the WHY behind the WHAT and the HOW by revealing the totality of one’s job role. The WHY refers to employees’ job purpose; their highest priority at work. For many employees, their highest priority at work is to create a delighted customer. What is your employees’ purpose at work? The WHAT refers to job knowledge and the HOW refers to job skills. In other words, in order to be competent, employees must know what to do and how to do it. But in order to delight customers, employees must also reflect job purpose. One way to do that is take the initiative to, for instance, anticipate a customer’s needs or recall her preferences.
  2. Connect employees’ daily job responsibilities to an enduring organizational purpose. Most job duties are connected to protocol, checklists, quotas, or other, equally uninspiring, mechanisms. Be intentional about connecting employees’ job responsibilities to job purpose, their highest priority at work. The success of supermarkets, for example, hinges on the facility’s cleanliness and the quality or freshness of perishables like produce, meats, baked goods, and dairy items. If a supermarket employee’s job purpose is to “make everything fresh,” then a routine task such as stocking yogurt provides an opportunity for her to take the initiative to rotate existing inventory to reduce incidents of expired product—because expired product is inconsistent with freshness.
  3. Set an aspirational goal that will harness the team’s collective efforts. In 1959, former PepsiCo CEO Alfred Steele set the aspirational goal “Beat Coke.” Unlike tactical goals that dispassionately guide the execution of job functions (the duties and tasks associated with a job role), an aspirational goal can be audacious, excessively grand or ambitious, bold, extravagant, and over-the-top. This goal will have the capacity to inspire esprit de corps—a feeling of pride, fellowship, and common loyalty—among employees. This commitment will spur employees to be observant, pay attention to detail, display a sense of urgency, and demonstrate a willingness to expend discretionary effort in other ways.
  4. Model desired behavior at all times. Restaurateur and author Bob Farrell said, “What they see is what you’ll get.” If employees see you taking the initiative to support coworkers, ensure quality, or delight customers, then they will be more likely to do the same. Too often, leadership trumpets a level of product or service quality that they themselves don’t model. It’s no wonder so many corporate quality campaigns lack credibility with employees and ultimately fail. An example I often point out in my consulting work is the discrepancy between the quality and cleanliness of areas intended for employees compared to those reserved for customers. Most employee locker rooms are dingy in comparison to facilities accessible to customers. And break rooms and cafeterias—places where employees go to re-energize for the remainder of their shift—are often sterile, nondescript, and uninspiring.If you hope to inspire initiative in your employees, first take the initiative to recognize their importance and value to the organization.
  5. Recognize (less formally and more frequently) when employees take initiative. I recall a Gallup study that revealed 65 percent of US workers claimed to have received no performance-based feedback from their immediate supervisor during the previous 12 months. And for those that do receive regular feedback, the majority pertains to job functions and management controls such as processes, policies, and procedures. Make it a point to notice, recognize, and share instances of employees reflecting job purpose, including taking initiative. Pre-shift meetings and team huddles are an easy, informal way to highlight initiative. Point out examples that you witnessed and invite others to share ways they took initiative or observed coworkers taking initiative.

Is this a comprehensive list? No, there are many other actions you could take to encourage your employees to take initiative. A colleague of mine poses the question, “What did you see me do?” to subordinates as a way to develop their job knowledge and skills and foster initiative. He told me that in addition to employees relating back to him what they had observed, thus reinforcing their learning and increasing their competency, this question has the added benefit of heightening their awareness and attention to detail. They know that at any time he might ask them, “What did you see me do?”



Being intentional about fostering initiative in the workplace will encourage action, energy, and enthusiasm among employees. This beats the alternatives of inaction, complacency, and indifference. It also creates an environment where employees (and, quite possibly, teenage children) offer to take action rather than waiting to be told what to do next.

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