Lead Artfully

Why won’t my staff use their initiative?

October 5, 2020
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Initiative in the workplace

Do you constantly find yourself asking why won't my staff use their initiative? Are you struggling with how to handle employees when staff don't think in their feet?

It’s every employer’s dream to hire proactive and engaged employees who can complete new tasks without excessive hand holding.   The term 'initiative' refers to a combination of resourcefulness, resilience and determination.   People who use their initiative ask questions, do things without being told, take on challenges and most importantly, act instead of reacting.

You can't pivot if you don't improvise

Organisations today value employees who can think on their feet, overcome difficulties and think of new ways to do things.  Businesses and work cultures all over the world are undergoing a paradigm shift, in the aftermath of the COVID-19, and the ability to take initiative is rapidly becoming a sought-after attribute.

Lack of initiative is usually a red flag that could indicate a disengaged workforce where you may risk losing skilled, productive employees.  Showing initiative is not a one-day effort; it’s an ongoing process that is reinforced with consistent encouragement and motivation.

So why won't my staff use their initiative?

The most common reasons for lack of initiative include:

• Struggling with an excessive workload; you don't want to take on extra work.

• Feeling that you are not qualified or experienced enough to take on the task.

• Experiencing fear or apprehension with the prospect of failure; the organisation encourages a ‘blame culture’ where employees often have to face flak for trying something new.

• Your employees don’t see any advantage in showing initiative; there is no reward or reinforcement system in place.

• Your employees feel uncomfortable and don’t feel a sense of belonging; they’re hesitant to voice their ideas due to fear of criticism or stress at work.

How initiative affects the workplace

At work, staff initiative is crucial as it shows you that your employees are willing to go the extra mile to drive results or resolve problems.

An inability to improve can be seen in the unwillingness to exercise judgement when something a unexpected occurs.   You may also notice an unwillingness to invest effort or hard work; some who lack initiative will find a way to get out of any hard work that is required.

Sadly, staff who lack initiative pass up valuable opportunities, reduce productivity and may disrupt the performance of others.   Such staff not only procrastinate on tasks but may also give you excuses on why they can't do something even before they've started.

"but we've always done it this way..."

If your team lacks initiative, there is a high chance the organisation is tied to old ways of doing things.   The business will be unable to move with the times, and symptoms will appear such as increasing customer complaints, inflexibility, and conflict with internal teams.   The organisation is likely to lose out on new opportunities and growth.

You might be surprised to learn that you could be reinforcing the problem, as the manager or employer within the company.  Your staff may be interested in taking the initiative but may be held back for various reasons, all of which can be resolved.

How to work with employees who aren't taking the initiative

Of course we are not suggesting employers merely push employees to take fool-hardy risks. Leaders need to encourage staff to be forward-thinking, innovative and confident.

How you deal with an team member lacking initiative depends entirely on the cause.  The following strategies describe what you, as leader, can do to resolve the issue:

Step 1: Meet

Meet the employee one-on-one for an honest, up front discussion.  While lack of initiative can be traced to fear of consequences, at times, it could be due to inability or even laziness.

Step 2: Offer solutions

Offer solutions based on the cause.  For example, if the employee fears reprimand from the management, assure them of your support.  Similarly, if the employee lacks the requisite skills, consider providing training.

Step 3: Observe & respond

If you discover that the root cause for lack of initiative is laziness or poor work attitude, you will need to take performance management steps as soon as possible.  If you ignore poor performance, it spreads to other members of your team.  But first talk to the individual and identify the problem showing clear examples, and give them an opportunity to address it.  If they don't address it, then follow formal performance management processes carefully!  Employment laws differ in each country, but most jurisdictions have set rules of engagement in this area that you will need to follow.  But it needs to be done, don't put it off.

Step 4: Reward initiative

Reward those employees that do use their initiative.  Often a genuine thank you in front of their peers (or a team email shout out) is a great way to encourage the behaviour,  and make special mentions in performance appraisals.  Also consider a gift, bonus in their pay, or a full or half day off.  Gifts don't need to be big or expensive, a thoughtful gesture goes a long way.

Step 5: Forgive mistakes

If the employee has made an error and you need to give feedback, use empowering words and inform them that you appreciate their effort despite the error.  Find the positives!  Remember, mistakes are portals to discovery.

Step 6: Empower

Empower your staff members to make decisions.  Lengthy office protocols and red tape may prevent employees from using their initiative.  Let them know upfront what types of decisions you're happy for them to make, and let them make them.

Note sure how to delegate new work effectively?  Check out our article on when you should delegate.

Step 7: Stay engaged

Stay engaged with your employees by staying involved with what's going on.  This can be challenging when working remotely, so have daily catch-ups.  Doing this will prevent even lazy employees from wasting time and adopting a poor attitude, or at least give you evidence of such behaviours through observation.

And most importantly...

Lead!  Recognise that mistakes are learning experiences and refrain from criticising your team in public or using inappropriate language to upbraid them.  Create a supportive, encouraging culture in the workplace that motivates your staff to step out of their comfort zones and use their initiative willingly.  If you find yourself asking "why won't my staff use their initiative" - you will need to so something about it!

Recommended reading:

How to Speak Human - D Jackson

Building an Innovative Learning Organization - R Sarder

Organizational Culture and Leadership - EH Schein