I once changed roles in a company I was working for and I had the opportunity to review the team I was leaving behind with their incoming leader. We talked about the strengths and weaknesses and how he could help each of them to continue to grow.
When discussing a particular employee I made the comment that this person would do anything you asked them to do to the very best of their ability. That was their strength. Their weakness was that if you didn’t ask them to do anything then nothing is exactly what they would do. Nothing! The person completely lacked initiative.
That’s a huge challenge for many people in the workplace today. They wait and wait to be told what to do. When they are told what to do they will need explicit instructions on when to start and how to do it. You may tell them to do something every Monday morning for a year but the first Monday morning you fail to tell them to do it do not be surprised when it doesn’t get done.
There are lots of reasons some people lack initiative.
Some have what’s called Bounded Rationality. That’s a fancy way of saying they can’t even consider doing something they are not told to do. If it is something not entirely within their comfort zone they won’t even consider doing it unless they are explicitly directed to do it. They may not feel especially qualified to do it and unsure where to start. That’s an initiative killer too.
Some people are lazy. They expend the majority of their energy finding ways to NOT accomplish something. But as a leader you should know this: they were not born lazy. Somewhere along the way they lost their motivation and with it their initiative. Perhaps a former boss or teacher told them they would never succeed. Maybe someone told them they didn’t have what it takes to excel. Sadly they may have believed that.
If you have the audacity the call yourself a leader then never give up on someone who may be lazy today. Discover their motivators and help them find their initiative again. That is not a burden for an Authentic Leader, it is a challenge they enthusiastically accept.
Some people who seem to lack initiative have learned that if they wait long enough to take action that someone, likely you, will come along to rescue them. Their lack of initiative is strategic.
They know that you or someone else you assign will swoop in to get the work done. In these cases you as a leader are at least party responsible for their lack of initiative. You have taught them that they do not need to be accountable. You deny them the opportunity to learn and grow. You limit their opportunities to learn decision making and correcting mistakes they may have made.
If they are thinking they cannot succeed you have solidified their thinking. That’s not effective leadership.
Sometimes too much initiative can actually lead to what appears to be a lack of initiative. When a person says yes to more than they can handle they may become so overburdened that they don’t know where to begin…so they don’t.
As a leader you must not allow your people to become so weighted down with work that they can’t maintain their forward momentum. When that happens most leaders wonder what happened to their former top performer. What they don’t realize is that what happened to them was inattentive leadership.
If you’re not yet a leader but you want to be then you must make taking the initiative a habit. If you hope for greater success in the future then stop hoping and start taking the initiative.
Make no mistake about this absolute fact: if you always wait for someone to tell you what to do you can be certain that someone will always be telling you what to do.