When Taking Too Much Initiative Hurts You

One of my all-time favorite leadership values is being proactive. It’s Stephen Covey’s first habit. Taking initiative (and accepting responsibility) is the characteristic that makes all the others possible. But can it be taken too far?

Unfortunately, I’ve learned it can be – mostly because of the challenges I’ve noticed or inadvertently created for myself over the years. So if you’re a go-getter, keep it up. But know when to go fast and when to slow down. Otherwise, you may experience some of these unpleasant reactions.

Businessman Running

Lack of Buy-In

Leaders are responsible for creating change, but most of us depend on other leaders (and entities) to work together to bring the change to fruition. Herein lies that challenge. Consensus takes time and effort. If we skip this step (either because we’re too impatient or aren’t very good at it), we’ll create more problems than we solve. Our ideas become increasingly independent and siloed – and therefore less realistic and validated by the organization. The longer we go, the more difficult it becomes to gain the consensus we need. If you’ve ever had to scrap a project and start over, you probably know what I’m talking about.

Wasted Time & Resources

Big decisions need to be made before certain initiatives should be acted on, whether a key hire, planning review, feedback session or budget. Neglect to wait and you may need to execute a complete about-face. As irritating as placing projects “on hold” can be, sometimes it’s the best strategy until larger issues are cleared up.

Political Backlash

The more collaborative your role is, the more you will inevitably come into contact with information that hasn’t been made public yet. Then, in the course of your work, you’ll have moments when people either ask for your input or act with the information they have and you’ll be forced to make a choice. Should you be “helpful” with the relevant information you’re privy to or withhold and let things get off course? There may not be a black and white “right” answer. Just realize the inherent risk of sharing someone else’s sensitive message. It may come back to bite… hard.

Loss of Trust

Promises are dangerous. Think twice before you make even well-intentioned ones. I worked on an employee engagement project several years ago. One of the major themes shared by the workforce was disillusionment over all the promises senior management had given but never followed through on. One employee commented, “It would be better if they never promised to fix this issue than to promise and let us down… again.” Contrast that with a response from an executive recently who asked for more feedback before sharing a broad message “just to make sure we don’t set an expectation we can’t meet.” Treat trust like a football: protect it with both hands.

Being proactive is the first crucial step toward leadership. But as you’ve seen by now, taking initiative too quickly can be a sign of immaturity. The key is usually staying in sync with other leaders and initiatives. An old African proverb states, “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Don’t let your need to achieve outpace the timing of the organization.

Nathan Magnuson is an executive leadership consultant, speaker and author of the books Stand Out! and Ignite Your Leadership Expertise. Click to see the exciting ways Nathan is helping organizations and teams become more effective with Leadership-in-a-Box.