Get More Initiative From Your People

June 20, 2016

“I don’t know that I’ve ever had someone come to me with that level of initiative. If they did, I think I’d be blown away.”

I heard these words from an executive at a leadership event a couple weeks ago. His frustrations weren’t anything new. Why can’t employees take more initiative to solve organizational problems?

It’s a common question with a wide variety of possible answers. Unfortunately, we usually get the level of initiative we reinforce. Let’s take a closer look at what initiative really means – and how to inspire the initiative you need to be effective.

6 Levels of Initiative

In his thought leadership on management, William Oncken introduced several levels of initiative a person can take in a given circumstance. It’s quite a wide range. Take a look:

  1. Wait until told (lowest level)
  2. Ask what to do
  3. Recommend a course of action and then act after approval
  4. Act and report immediately
  5. Act and report periodically
  6. Act independently and report if asked (highest level)

Determine the Level Needed

If you’re in the same boat as the executive mentioned above, you probably looked at this list and immediately identified the level preferred. If not, that’s where you need to start. There is a huge difference between level one and level six. We often bemoan a lack of initiative, but depending on the business situation, taking too much initiative can actually be extremely damaging. And don’t forget to factor in your own preference for hands-on or hands-off management.

Communicate Expectations

Once you’re clear on the level of initiative you desire, you need to communicate it explicitly to your employee(s). Until you do, nothing has actually changed. And be sure to differentiate between tasks and situations. Some tasks you may want to be asked about and others you may expect your employee to take care of himself.

As a young consultant, I was often intimidated by the client leaders I supported. They had experience and authority. I didn’t have much of either. But my bosses gave me explicit expectations that my job was to come to the table with recommendations. Regardless of how uncomfortable I felt at times, I knew it was my responsibility to deliver. (This is probably one reason why I now encourage everyone who wants to increase their influence to do the same).

There is no benefit of the doubt when it comes to expectations. Unclear expectations are always costly.

Adjust as Necessary

Aside from results, one of your chief duties as a manager is to develop talent. Let’s face it, if your talent doesn’t grow, neither will you. As your employees’ capacity expands, adjust (and communicate) the expectations for their initiative higher. Take it step by step. Development levels are often different between employees – but each will grow with your support.

When we don’t give more initiative, unskilled employees become stunted and skilled employees start looking for opportunities elsewhere.

The next time you wish an employee would take more initiative, you have the opportunity to turn your focus inward. Do you know what level of initiative you want? Have you communicated clearly? Do you need to adjust? Follow these steps and you’ll see your team’s productivity spike.

Nathan Magnuson is a leadership consultant, coach, trainer and thought leader.  Receive his new ebook Trusted Leadership Advisor by subscribing to his website  or follow him on Twitter.