Over the last week, I’ve had several conversations with hiring managers, and the same topic surfaced repeatedly. Every employer referenced, in one way or another, taking initiative. In all of my discussions, the frequency with which initiative was identified as the most desirable trait in an employee was rivaled only by that of reliability.
At first, I was baffled as to why lack of initiative seemed to be such a widespread problem, spanning various industries, organizational structures, and management styles. By the end of the week, I concluded the issue is probably not hoards of lazy employees, but more likely a lack of consensus about what constitutes initiative, among employers, as well as employees.
In a rather jocular encounter with my supervisor, he commented he liked me because I am always three, and sometimes five, steps ahead of him. The remark was lighthearted, in response to a trivial scheduling task I completed before being asked, so it, unfortunately, isn’t likely to make it to the “comments” section of my performance evaluation. However, it did help clarify what some employers mean by “initiative.” My supervisor was commenting on my ability to anticipate his needs. Mindreading seems like a tall order, but isn’t really difficult. No manager, none I associate with anyway, expects an employee to know his or her every occupational desire, but preparing for foreseeable demands reduces stress and saves precious resources.
This realization only led to a greater problem; how do we become organizationally clairvoyant? In a meeting with Dr. Marvin Gentry, of Heal Thyself Naturopathic, I began to understand we develop our psychic office abilities through role playing. For many of us, this is so natural, we don’t even realize were doing it. We assume the role of another person and imagine what we might need or want in that specific circumstance. For Dr. Gentry, anticipating his needs means anticipating his patients’ needs. A firm grasp of consumer expectations and wants will provide valuable insight into employer needs.
When the subject of initiative came up in another conversation, with another manager, concerning the prospect of promoting an employee, I enquired as to why the employee is failing to demonstrate initiative. His response was simple, “because she thinks she is already taking initiative.” This employee feels completing her assigned tasks and following directions demonstrates initiative. Her reluctance to identify tasks and complete them without direct supervision is driven by a fear of making a mistake, not laziness. There is inherent risk in anticipating the needs of others. The consequences of making a mistake vary from a little wasted time to a catastrophic loss of capital and other resources. Employees who succeed by taking initiative effectively calculate the risks of being wrong. If the consequences of making a mistake are not disastrous, most managers will appreciate the effort, even if it doesn’t deliver the intended results. If a mistake could result in significant losses, present ideas for feedback. Just sharing an idea is, often, enough to garner you a few initiative points.