How to get employees to show initiative

If your employees are not providing the creative input you expect from them, look in the mirror. It’s likely that you are the person at fault.

Managing for profit by Peter Hughes

My friend, Hannes, was bothered. “As much as I try to get my guys involved in the day-to-day planning, and come forward with their own ideas, I can’t get them to respond.

Why?” he asked.

At one time or another, we have all become frustrated by the lack of response from subordinate staff. When we’ve asked, “What do you think?”, we get blank stares in return.

There could be many reasons that Hannes is not getting creative contributions from his staff, but drawing on my own experience I gave him one answer, which he didn’t expect or like.

“Either the company, or you, or both, are doing something wrong, Hannes,” I said.

“Of course there are some people who lack the assertiveness and ability to contribute in the way you expect, but if you want enthusiastic involvement and participation from your staff, look in the mirror. You need to see where you are going wrong, or what policies and practices in the company are killing initiative.”

This subject has been extensively researched by students of management, and three main contributing factors have been identified: expertise, motivation and flexible thinking.

I have added a fourth: confidence. All these aspects are greatly influenced by the job environment, which is, of course, created by management.

Confidence
People differ markedly in their inherent level of personal confidence, but this, as we know, is not an inflexible character trait. Success builds confidence, failure damages it, and we’ve all seen people either gain or lose confidence due to a good or bad experience.

If an employee’s suggestion is rejected outright, that person will be hesitant to try again.

Even worse is when a manager rejects an impractical or inappropriate suggestion with impatience or rudeness, saying something like, “Come on, that’s a really stupid idea.”

If done in public, a rebuke like this is certain to discourage any employee from showing initiative.

Expertise
You might be expecting your staff to comment on areas where they don’t have the necessary knowledge. No one, regardless of capability, can make a meaningful contribution to a discussion on a subject that he or she knows nothing about.

In this case, the boss can add insult to injury by making a snide remark about the staff’s lack of initiative. Again, this will swiftly extinguish any sparks of creativity.

Motivation
It may be that your staff simply does not feel strongly enough about the matter to care one way or the other.

Remember that motivation arises from two sources: a person’s character and the job itself.

All too often, managers seem to think that the best motivators for staff are money or the threat of dismissal, yet these are the least effective motivational tools, as I’ve discussed elsewhere.

Factors such as a challenging job, recognition, freedom to operate, and supervisory encouragement are more powerful motivating forces. And all are under the control of the company and its management.

Flexible thinking
This element of a person’s make-up is the most difficult for managers to influence. We all know that some fortunate people are naturally imbued with great talent, while others are not.

Attempts to extract creativity from non-creative people will result in failure most of the time. Down will go the confidence and down will go the capacity of the person concerned to contribute.

The time to assess the natural creative capacity of your employees is when you appoint them, not later, when you expect things from them they cannot provide.