A common feedback at performance appraisal meetings is to take more initiative. We all understand the presence or absence of initiative, but how does one know if one was taking enough initiative or not? Let’s examine one tool that does precisely that.
How can you tell someone who takes initiative? Well, mostly, you don’t have to tell her to do something – she is all by herself taking care of things without being asked to do so. On the contrary, how do you know if someone is not taking any initiative – chances are he is slacking off just doing the routine 9-5 work and generally waiting to be instructed at every step. Let’s develop the model from here.
Stage 1: ‘Wait’
Perhaps the worst and least desirable thing to to keep waiting for someone to come and tell what to do next. This means not only one is not taking any initiative, one is also playing extremely safe to maintain the status quo. We wall this as ‘wait’ on the five-point scale of initiative and is the lowest or default stage. There could be several reasons to be in this stage – demotivation, lack of interest, being too risk-averse or plain insubordination. It is extremely difficult to make someone wake up from this slumber and start being a little more proactive.
Stage 2: ‘Ask’
What does one do to get out of this wait state. Remember, we are talking about taking initiatives and not taking orders. A most natural behavior would be to ‘ask’ your manager to give you some more work! At this point, there is no confidence in us to go out and take up something by ourselves, so the only incremental change in behavior is to ask for work. Asking for work shows an increased awareness of one’s skills and competencies and a higher level of conscience that one must do more than what isbeing asked to do. We call this as ‘ask’ state and it represents the second step to be highly initiative. You will notice that unlike our friend in ‘wait’ state, the person in ‘ask’ state is generally beginning to get uncomfortable with the status quo and feels he could (and should) contribute more, but is not sure where to begin, or whether he has property rights to take up a certain task. He needs lots of support and direction as this point and any negative feedback can crush him and send him back to ‘wait’ state. So, a manager must be extra careful to provide him that little bit of support and understanding.
Stage 3: ‘Recommend’
How does one continue to demonstrate a genuine interest in state of affairs. In the ‘ask’ state, we are still not thinking and taking action, but is surely better than waiting forever. Once one has ‘asked’ for work a few times, two things happen: the person develops rapport with his manager and also develops some knowledge and competencies around the subject. This helps him to raise his stakes a little more by sticking his neck out once in a while and ‘recommend’ an opinion or a course of action to the manager. The act of recommending demonstrates that the person understands what’s happening instead of asking an open question whether he can do something, which essentially means that the person doesn’t really understand which is more important work and is asking his manager to make decisions for him.
Stage 4: ‘Act Independently but Report Immediately’
Now, imagine someone who has made several such recommendations, encounters real-life situation where no one is around to take permission from. What does he do? He is surely confident of his understanding of the problem and has some idea of laying out a solution for the same. However, he is still not sure if that is the correct solution. This doesn’t stop him from taking the appropriate action that he deems fit, partly also because he has been positively supported by his manager in the past for sharing his opinions and recommendations about possible solutions, so what if not all of them were great ideas. So, off he goes and does whatever he feels is the best thing to do under the circumstances.
After doing something for the first-time by yourself, what is the most natural reaction apart from telling your mom? Telling your manager! Seems like a very right thing to do to build enough air cover should something go wrong – after all, he is still not sure if that is the best way to do to fix that problem. After all, he is only linearly building on his prior experiences, and thinks his manager will support him here too. This fourth stage is ‘taking independent action but reporting immediately’.
Stage 5: ‘Act Independently and Report Routinely’
What happens when the fourth stage behavior is not only actively supported by the manager, but also practiced a couple of times by the individual. It does supergood to the confidence of the individual not just about his subject matter skills, but also the rapport with his manager. Next time such a thing happens, he doesn’t wait for any instructions but simply takes independent action and – instead of immediately reporting, does what is ‘routine reporting’, meaning, he doesn’t feel the urge to either project it as a great accomplishment as a child doing something for the first time, not does he feel the need to build an air cover. He is ‘taking independent action and reporting routinely’.
So, here it is – the five-point model to identify behaviors at different stages of initiative. Try to visualize the behavior of someone new in his job, or working with a new manager, or someone who has just been promoted to take on new responsibilities. In pretty much all these situations, the scale of initiative will be reset and start from the first phase. Gradually, the rapport and confiedence will have to be built to keep moving on the higher stages of initiative. The irony is – when you reach the top stage of initiative, you are superperforming and getting ready for a promotion, and after promotion, you again enter an unknown world in the new role, and drop down back to to level one :). However, that should not be the reason not to take initiative, because only by taking sufficient initiative, you are opening up new avenues.
PS: This tool was introduced to me by my HR Manager, Mali, in ~1998. I haven’t been able to find any literature on it, but have practiced and shared with hundreds of people by now. I like its simplicity and amazing power to chart out your own course in any job, any role. Thanks Mali!
How do you measure your initiative?