“Why won’t my staff take initiative?” , “why do they always come to me with any little problem?” , “why do I have to spoonfeed my staff?” These are questions that a lot of managers ask and don’t know the answer to, so this is what this article is all about. How can you encourage employees to take initiative and why won’t they do it in the first place?

Why won’t my staff take initiative?

Instead of pulling your hair out at this conundrum, ask yourself this: if a staff member comes to you with a problem, do you tend to give them the answer and send them on their way or do you take it off them because “it’ll be quicker?”

If you have done or tend to do both of these things, then you are training your staff to not take initiative; you’re training them to be helpless.

While it can be difficult to accept that you may be the reason for your staff not taking initiative, it’s important to identify if you are. To test whether it may be what you’re doing, pay attention to the below:

  • Do your employees come to you whenever they get stuck before trying to work it out for themselves?
  • Do you find that your schedule is busy with tasks that you should be delegating?
  • Do you take tasks off your employees before trying to help them with it because it’ll be quicker for you to do it yourself?

If you answered yes to any of the above, you may be training your staff not to take initiative. It may not be a problem once or it may be quicker doing it that one time when you’re very busy, but over time, this is a serious issue. You don’t want your employees to learn that they can come to you with any little problem and you’ll just take it off their hands. All this does is make them helpless and it makes you a busy fool.

How to encourage employees to take initiative

So we’ve established that taking tasks off your employees is a problem. After all, delegation is supposed to be one-way, so how can you rectify this? Here are 5 ways that you can encourage employees to take initiative.

1. Create a safe and supportive environment which is outcome-based

Employees don’t tend to take initiative because it incurs a certain amount of risk, a risk that, if it doesn’t pay off, will most likely result in punishment. Many companies tend to operate this way and as you can imagine, it doesn’t make employees confident or forthcoming with taking initiative.

So how can you overcome this? How can you advocate that it’s okay to make mistakes and to fail as long as they are learned from? In short, create a safe and supportive environment. Encourage your employees to take risks and to think outside the box. Show them that you are a proactive and innovative firm that thrives on challenges. Recognise employees for taking risks, even if it didn’t work out, and encourage them to continue trying.

As Bill Gates once said, “How a company deals with mistakes suggests how well it will wring the best ideas and talents out of its people.” He was referring to repercussions here. If you support taking initiative, you have to also advocate that mistakes are a great platform to learn from. By relaxing repercussions to an opportunity for growth and learning, you won’t limit your employees to certain tasks and ideas, you’ll be encouraging them to be creative.

2. Set exciting goals and celebrate them to foster collaboration

When we are excited and passionate about our work, we are motivated and driven to do our best. With this in mind, if you want your employees to start thinking for themselves, then you need to excite them.

To do this, get to know your employees more and know their strengths and what they love doing. Once you know this, you can then set them different and exciting goals, and then track the progress of these goals via an online collaboration tool (e.g. Monday.com). If everyone can see how far each person is from reaching their goals, this helps massively with accountability and also team-motivation. Don’t forget to make a point of celebrating once these have been reached too (albeit virtually!).

With the Coronavirus making a lot of us feel quite alone, this sense of camaraderie has never been so important. If you can foster collaboration, then you’ll soon see that your employees will start to work through potential issues between them.

3. Adapt from manager to ‘coach’

If you want to know the best way to encourage employees to take initiative, the key is to adapt your management style. Don’t take tasks from your employees if they are struggling but don’t dismiss them with a “go away and work it out for yourself” attitude either. Both of these won’t give you the results you want which is training your employees to take initiative.

To encourage employees to take initiative, you have to start investing some time to help them in the moment when they come to you. What we mean by this is to take on more of a coaching role. Ask them “what would you do if I wasn’t here?” and guide them towards the answer rather than telling them. Ask them to talk you through the steps they would take and if they’ve gone wrong, question what they think the issue could be.

A lot of the time, your employees can reach the answer or another potential solution themselves, you just need to guide them there. We realise that this does take time for you to do initially, but if this is done well, soon your employees won’t come to you at all.

4. Reward initiative 

As we said, employees are afraid to take risks, so reward initiative. Whether it worked out or it didn’t, celebrate it. Your employees need to feel comfortable doing what they feel is right, so don’t punish them for that; help them learn from any mistakes.

We all love to be rewarded and praised for doing good work and this positive reinforcement will only serve to encourage the type of thinking and performance that you want. So find the best way to reward your employees. It could be a virtual shout out in the company newsletter or via your other communication channels; it could even be a physical reward such as a spa treatment or a box of chocolates. Depending on how much of a difference their achievement made, you could also throw in an extra day off or the freedom to start their own project. 

5. Don’t forget to lead by example

If you want your staff to take initiative more, you need to start doing so yourself. If you want them to get involved and excited, you need to encourage the sharing of ideas and show how you are trying new approaches too. Be the change that you want to see in your firm because your employees embody you. If you’re taking initiative, then they’ll take your lead and will feel comfortable to do the same.

As well as paving the way for behaviour and performance, don’t forget to tell your employees how much you value them showing initiative and doing things without being prompted. Appreciation goes a long way. When you delegate as well, don’t forget to delegate the authority to make decisions. Good managers give employees the authority to take the initiative on certain things without prior approval.

Don’t be the reason why your staff won’t take initiative

The last thing you want – particularly when many companies are moving rapidly to potentially a permanent, virtual working model – is for your staff to not take the initiative as soon as it gets hard. So nip this in the bud now. Invest the time initially to coach them to the solution, support and reward initiative, and lead by example, and soon you’ll find that you don’t even have to encourage employees to take initiative; they’ll just do it naturally.

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