Taking Initiative: The Double-Edged Sword in the Workplace


Taking Initiative to discuss Initiative Taking

How many times have you been a part of a conversation with a manager who was “politely” complaining about the fact that his employees don’t take initiative. Phrases like “Ask for forgiveness, not permission” get tossed around more than slogan hats at a political campaign rally. But is it really that simple? This article provides a different perspective.

This article is a testament to itself, as it’s being written by me, Taz, a humble employee, as opposed to Deano, our director and literary savant that usually writes our blog entries. Reason: He is stretched so thin at the moment that you can tell when he’s hungry. Thus, I am aptly TAKING THE INITIATIVE to write this article, unbeknownst to him. Let’s see how it goes.

I intend to approach the idea of initiative taking from an employee’s perspective, acknowledging both pros and cons and diving into my own success stories and misadventures, while all the while, trying to pinpoint which factors were responsible for my successes or failures. My aim is to share what I’ve learned along the way.

Initiative or Schminitiative

Firstly, I would like to clarify what I define as initiative. Basically, taking initiative includes an element of chaos and risk. Someone who takes initiative to follow their manager’s advice by venturing slightly outside their job description is not actually taking initiative, but rather is behaving as an extension to their manager’s personal drive, or behaving as a mentee, if you will.

No sir/mam. If there isn’t an element of knowing you may get fired or, at the least, told off for working outside your scope of responsibility, then I can’t call it true initiative. It needs to be personal enthusiasm that drives you to act, or else it would be as superficial as combining two fashion trends to create your outfit and calling yourself original. If it doesn’t come from you, then it will not do (for the context of this article). Sorted. Let’s move on.

Bravery is to be scared and do it anyway

From early in my career, it became obvious to me that inaction was a form of action, in that someone would cognitively choose to do nothing. Sometimes that strategy applies well. Sometimes waiting for the correct timing to act or react is spot on. However, most of the time I would perceive people’s inaction as an opportunity to shine.

If anything, I prioritized mastering skills that most people were afraid of, such as public speaking (glossophobia: one of the most common fears in the world). Generally, I felt that if you wish to stand out, it is best to swim in less populated waters, even if they seem terrifying. And so, I did, leaving a faint yellowish streak floating behind me.

Every time there was an opportunity to step on a stage to represent my team, and more importantly, my boss, I would leap at the opportunity without anyone asking me. If I didn’t, the opportunity would have just been waived off by our team, given that we didn’t need it, and no one was actively seeking out stressful situations, except me apparently. I did this so many times that, eventually, these opportunities would just be sent to my desk directly, bypassing my manager’s gaze completely.

While scary at first, speaking to strangers became somewhat of a new role of mine. Personally, I perceived this as a promotion. I was still getting paid the same but was enjoying what I was doing more and more. I actually stopped looking at the clock. Work was no longer work. It was passion.

More importantly, something I never saw coming was a slight boost in personal fame. My name was personally being mentioned in the industry and I would be lying if I didn’t admit that it made me feel recognized and, subsequently, more motivated. The lesson learnt was clear to me:

Lesson 1: If you feel passionate enough about something, even if you’re not good at it yet, take every shot you can get to improve at it, even if it means extra hours without the extra pay. No regrets.

Trust builds trust

The more public speaking events I volunteered for, the more comfortable I got. So much so that I began organizing my own after a while. I can only now recognize this as more initiative within the original initiative. With more control over the context of the event, I began leveraging my messages to generate new interest for our company. This could NOT go unnoticed by my management and, as a result, I was promoted. More importantly, I was trusted.

Work life for an employee really changes when they feel trusted wholeheartedly. It brought out the absolute best in me. I suggested new ideas and projects that I would lead. I was given a team to support my ambitions, and, to my surprise, I was rarely questioned.

My team and I voluntarily worked longer hours, seeking personal validation through our efforts, genuinely enjoying every minute of each other’s time. This led to more initiatives and more successes, but more importantly, it led to a few failures. The management’s reaction to the first of these failures is what stuck with me.

After 9-months into a self-initiated project, I experienced a negative Eureka moment, i.e. “Eureka! This is NOT going to work!” I put my tail between my legs, entered my manager’s office and expressed my apologies, showing understanding if I was to be let go after wasting so many resources. Instead, his response was “Taz, what’s your next idea?”

Lesson 2: Take the initiative but hold yourself fully accountable if it fails. Managers trust people, not ideas. A good manager will respect your bravery, regardless of result. A bad manager uses results to punish brave employees, and then wonders why no one takes initiative.

Too much of a good thing

While the article has, so far, praised the act of initiative taking, it would be incomplete if I fail to mention the number of times it got me in trouble, and rightfully so. Any behavior, if repeated long enough can turn into a sub-conscious habit. If you’ve had the pleasure of experiencing our ‘Working with Humans’ smart course, you know very well what I mean.

When this type of habit is applied to a challenge-oriented mentality, one can find themselves juggling every project they initiated even if they don’t recall when and why each one started.

As I grew into the description of the fearless catalyst, my brain began to seek the familiar adrenaline rush that a new adventure brings with it. Without noticing, I found myself knee-deep in 8 projects, each one with its respective stakeholders. I was responsible for leading several teams and maintaining respective relationships with all external parties involved. No matter what anyone says, multi-tasking is a myth.

One mistake led to another, until it was made clear that my capability had deteriorated. It was only a matter of time before I was forced to pass the projects on to someone else. It was humbling to burn out like that, and even more so to do it publicly.

Lesson 3: It’s impossible to know your limits before you get there. But just know, that when you do burn out, you realize that your brain and body are that of human being, nothing more. Do less better. Divided passion is no longer passion.

One man’s strength is another man’s burden

When harnessing an entrepreneurial or innovative mindset, taking initiative is a way of life. Solo entrepreneurs don’t really have a choice. Everything they do is an initiative. However, when working in a team, taking initiative can have its pitfalls, especially when you work for a larger corporation.

I don’t believe I’d be exaggerating if I said that people who take initiative ALL the time can come off as arrogant. I know I spent a good amount of time in that boat. When someone gets genuinely excited and passionate about an idea, they tend to forget that the world existed before them and that others may have already had their idea.

There’s even a chance that someone within your own organisation is CURRENTLY taking the same initiative. And yet, in the moment, it really is difficult to believe that this new adventure of yours is someone else’s old news. The result can only be described as disrespect. I’m quite ashamed to admit the following:

I found myself angry at one of the C-Level Managers in a huge organization I was in, because he asked me to stop my 3-month-old initiative. Between the huffs and puffs, I failed to realize that they had already initiated an almost identical project almost one year prior. In my hazy excitement, and lack of maturity, I never bothered to look into the chance that someone had the same idea before me. I, very arrogantly, believed that my thoughts were original. I was humiliated.

Lesson 4: Ask 1 million questions before you make a single assumption. Communicate openly with your team and company about your initiative and be open to what you hear. Passion can be blinding. You never know everything. Feedback needs to be treated as a gift. There’s no “I” in team. But there’s 2 of them in “idiot”.

One more thing

Before I conclude with the final lesson, I wanted to mention that within the 4 aforementioned key lessons, there were at least another 20 that I cannot include as they would have turned this article into a book. Perhaps they were lessons that only I perceived based on my experiences. Perhaps someone else would have learnt something different. The notion of initiative taking will always be subjective, and that brings me to the final point.

Despite how excited or motivated one may be about an initiative; the effort will be meaningless if it cannot be measured. Many, including myself, allow themselves to get so enthralled by a new adventure that they forget to set the right metrics PRIOR to commencing. The result leads to desperate arguments in an attempt to justify time invested, whereas if the data was being collected correctly along the way, there would be no need to persuade.

Lesson 5: Data speaks loudest. Use techniques such as SMART goals to ensure that you are treating both yourself and the initiative with the respect it deserves. Not only will it relieve you of the need to explain yourself, but it will also provide clear communication and respect towards any potential stakeholders involved in your precious journey.

Same applies to this article. Sure, it was an initiative I took, and I can argue to the death that it was a good idea. Perhaps Deano won’t like what I did here. Perhaps he will. In the end, if you’re still reading this on our blog , the only real explanation is because readers like YOU liked it, or at least the data said you did.

In the end, in this context, the only opinions that matter are yours. If you’re happy to share them with me, I would be happy to read them. Drop a comment below or on the LinkedIn post you found this on. Hopefully, I’ll do this again.

Taz Constantinou

Taz is an innovation coach that also enjoys "smarketing" tasks. He brings his own spin to coaching, combining his diverse international experience with his keen interest of human behavior and psychology, and even throwing in a few tricks from his journey as a comedian.