Inspire Employees to Take Initiative

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So you’re tired of complacent employees.

You want them to STEP UP — to show some initiative.

When you hired that last employee, she started out with amazing gusto. She asked lots of questions about procedures and customers. She quickly tackled projects and seemed to have an innate sense of what needed to be done. Over the past year or two, you’ve watched that enthusiasm fade.

Getting comfortable in a position is normal. Keeping that comfort from turning into a lack of interest is critical. You, as a manager or leader, may be partially responsible for waning interest and sagging engagement. You may also be the person who can reignite that drive and ambition.

Why do some employees make more suggestions, ask more questions, and bring new ideas to the table?

Some people in general have more drive. They’ve established goals for themselves that keep them pushing forward. They know how to make things interesting for themselves, and they come to the table with nothing less than 100 percent. But even these employees need a boost from time to time and can be discouraged if their initiative goes unnoticed or, worse, discouraged.

John Izzo, author of the book Stepping Up: How Taking Responsibility Changes Everything, suggests that leaders can help make this happen. 

  • His research indicates the biggest problem: “leaders making decisions without seeking input.” Employees are usually close to the action. Whether it’s clients or vendors or procedures, they have their finger on the pulse. By not asking them for input when a decision or change related to their area of expertise is being considered, you are diminishing their sense of value. Over the course of my career, I can think of many times I’ve heard this phrase from coworkers and friends: “I could have told them that wouldn’t work. But they didn’t ask me.” It’s a frustrating situation for most employees, and an unfortunate oversight by leaders. 
  • Additionally, when an employee comes to a manager with an idea or suggestion and gets no feedback, he or she becomes less and less likely to offer input. Being open to this input is vital to keeping the suggestions flowing. Negative feedback or dismissing the proposal altogether will eventually keep the employee from coming to you with ideas. Long term, this dismissive behavior on the part of managers leads to disengagement. Sometimes an employee’s timing of feedback may be bad. If that’s the case, set up a time to meet and revisit the idea so you have time to hear the person out completely. Sometimes an employee may raise a red flag on your pet project. Keep your ego in check, and give his or her concerns appropriate consideration. Encourage your employee’s assertiveness. You need both negative and positive feedback — the sooner a red flag is raised, the better. Investigate the concern. If it has merit, you will be able to cut your investment in time and resources sooner. If after investigation, you still deem it a good risk, let the employee know. 
  • Another factor that can cause workers to become complacent: no recognition for their ideas. Constructive feedback given by someone on your team should be rewarded if you want it to continue. Take note of ideas and suggestions and who made them. At the very least, thank them.
  • A lack of complete, current information can also cause employees to disengage. Take the time to communicate regularly with your team. Point out how their work contributes. When the big picture direction changes, let them know. This steady flow of information can lead to ideas and suggestions. It can help them understand why decisions affecting them are made.
  • Lisa Bodell, CEO of futurethink, offers this advice in a Forbes blog post, “Struggling with Workplace Complacency? Kill Your Stupid Rules.” Her article suggests that “management protocols and policies meant to keep things running smoothly are actually doing the opposite. Kill the stupid rule offers a framework and safe environment for people to question the status quo. It’s also an effective first step in transforming your employees’ mindset from trained monkey to engaged participant.”
  • Finally, when an organization doesn’t encourage employee development, opportunities are lost. Teams grow weary. Whether it’s giving employees time to take a class, read a book, or research a new idea, allowing for and encouraging growth shows your employees you’re interested in their professional development, that you see their potential.

Employees don’t always recognize when they become complacent. It’s often gradual. Managers and leaders can be partially responsible, and can change that downward spiral. The more you value employees’ ideas and involve them in decisions, the more engaged they will be. Communicate, educate, and recognize them. Your investment in them will multiply in their ideas, suggestions, and renewed initiative.

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