Posted on: March 15, 2021

Can you teach “Taking Initiative”?

Can you teach “Taking Initiative”?

Having worked with small business owners for most of my professional career, I am used to owners lamenting that their staff do not share the same passion for the work as they do. But, now, with COVID fully enveloping our traditional work-day efforts, a new cry has come up from nearly all business leaders, from companies large and small,: “why can’t my employees take any initiative?!?”

It seems, based on my informal research of nearly 50 businesses in the Washington DC area, that employees are falling into one of two categories: (1) those who take the initiative to expand their role and responsibilities in the organization based on arising needs or, (2) those who opt to follow the “letter” of their position description – no more and, often times, less. For us, at Fairfax University of America (FXUA), this prompted us to ask: is it possible to teach the competency, “taking initiative”?

At first glance, it would appear that initiative, like competitiveness, may be an inherent trait. But, as we continued to unravel the question, several aspects came to light:

  1. Risk, or more correctly risk aversion, appears to play a prominent role in determining whether an employee is willing to step out of their formal and practiced role. If the organization has a strict set of operational standards and practices, employees may feel stifled in taking any initiative for fear of crossing lines of control in the organization. However, for employees that enjoy some latitude of respect for their decision-making skills may opt, instead, to test certain limits in-line with their own perspectives of operational control.
  2. Communication agility represents another area that can either encourage initiative or foster an ongoing realization that your business may be operating in the “dreaded silo structure”.  For those of you who are not organizational theorists, the “dreaded silo structure” is an archaic organizational structure ideal that perpetuates the idea that each profit-center and accompanying support group, operate nearly independently of each other – to the point where ideas, resources, contracts and employees are never shared. It is akin to running several fully-operational companies under a single corporate name umbrella. This model, while highly effective at stimulating internal competition, falls woefully short of maximizing the full value of the corporate entity.
  3. Level of individual commitment, we found, does play a role in an employee’s desire to take initiative. In this gig economy, where individuals may have numerous business ventures operating under their guise, a single job may no longer be of interest for these individuals with competing requirements for their time and attention. We found that these gig employees often (and constantly!) weigh the benefits and downsides of investing their time in each endeavor choosing, in many cases, to focus their energies on activities that provide higher levels of monetary or intrinsic rewards.
  4. Finally, mission attainment versus financial motive also appears to play a role in initiative. Individuals often take on a higher level of initiative if they believe in the mission and values of the organization versus folks who are in it primarily for the paycheck. In this period of COVID, we are finding this aspect even more visible as individuals seek to make a difference with their lives – recognizing that there are limits to their own longevity.

From a university perspective, we believe you can teach “taking initiative”. The caveat, of course, is whether your organization is properly set-up to allow this individual competency to be realized!