Initiative is something that executives hope for in employees, but the truth of the matter is that initiative has to start with the leader. Yes, initiative is a quality that — like organization or kindness — some people are simply more inclined to than others. However, that doesn’t mean that initiative can’t be taught, and as we all know, the best way to teach something is through demonstration.
Michael Frese and Doris Fay define initiatives as a “work behavior characterized by its self-starting nature, its proactive approach, and by being persistent in overcoming difficulties that arise in pursuit of a goal.” According to this definition, initiative in the workplace isn’t a quality that a person has, but rather a behavior that can be learned and repeated. And, like almost all workplace behaviors, initiative starts at the top.
Encouraging employee initiative begins with showing initiative yourself. Bring your team together and have them discuss the goals that you have outlined for the coming year. If you haven’t already, seek their input on your team goals. Get their reactions and engage them in debate about whether or not the goals are reasonable, whether they’re too small or incomplete… then talk to them about action steps.
One simple way to encourage initiative is by allowing your team members to take responsibility for the action steps that appeal most of them, rather than doling out assignments to them. This helps your employees feel ownership over the steps that they’ve claimed, and gives them stronger motivation for working proactively to achieve their portion of each step.
You can also encourage initiative amongst your team members by giving them free reign to brainstorm, work, and problem solve as a group. By stepping back and letting them take the reins of their own projects, you’ll let them take command of their own responsibilities, inspiring them to do better not just for you but for their own sense of pride and accomplishment.
As with any workplace behavior, repetition is key. Give your employees every opportunity to come to you with new thoughts and ideas. Encourage openness, debate, and boldness. If you can do that, you’ll build a team of leaders who have the motivation to get things done.