Is it YOUR Fault That Your Employees Lack Initiative?

You feel you’re an effective leader. You support your employees, you listen to your employees, you advocate for your employees: you are THERE for your employees! But you’re encountering a persistent issue: many of your staff members aren’t taking initiative. They seem hesitant to share an idea, be the point person on a multi-departmental team, volunteer to the be representative at the chamber of commerce event, lead the conversation during a brainstorming session, clean the microwave in the staff kitchen. Of course, if you specifically ASK them to do something they will but they don’t lead the charge. This is an ongoing challenge in all workplaces – from the rural Berkshires to New York City.

Your employees are stuck in a lack-of-initiative rut: resentful because they feel they aren’t being offered opportunity but they’re not being offered opportunity because they don’t show initiative. And it may be your fault. You may be doing too much for them. You may not be doing enough for them. You may be unclear in your expectations. You may have built a team where communication and creative thinking don’t feel safe.

As we all well know, every manager has his or her own style, strengths and limitations. Building a strong team is a wonderful challenge: they are often comprised of people of different ages and stages of life; varied abilities; diverse cultural backgrounds; challenging communication styles; and unique personal issues. Mix all of this together and all kinds of funky issues can result. The good news is that you can increase the potential for initiative! Consider the following:

  1. Communicate expectations. If your employees don’t understand what they’re supposed to be working towards, they feel weighted down by indecision. They need a clear outcome to work towards. Want sales to increase by 10%? Tell them that you’re looking for creative ideas to increase sales by 10%. And then ask them to come to the next meeting with 3 – 5 ideas each. All ideas are welcome. Together choose the best ideas and then let THEM move the ideas forward.
  2. Create a speak-freely environment. It can be scary to show initiative. You no doubt have employees with little experience with leading a charge projects and some who have shown enthusiasm and initiative in the past and had their ideas shut down. Or perhaps they’ve been micromanaged. Let your employees know that they are empowered to try new tactics and launch new systems. Let them know that if they have concerns, to run it by you but your trust them to move it forward. Even if you don’t love their plan, if it’s not unsafe, unethical or unsustainable, let them run with it. If it doesn’t ultimately work out, don’t say, “Well, that’s what I expected.” Say, “Why do you think it didn’t work out? What did we learn? What should we try next?”
  3. Be a role model. You show initiative. You show resilience. You show positivity in the face of failure. That kind of attitude rubs off. Yes, leading by example sounds easy; however, few leaders are consistent in this category. As a leader, you need to consistently show initiative: your employees are watching you.
  4. Reward success. Yes, there are all kinds of “rewards programs” spearheaded out of Human Resources. I’m all for them. But honestly, the best reward for an employee who has shown initiative and moved something successfully forward on their own is to verbally recognize them one-on-one and in front of others. And then to offer them more responsibility. When an employee knows their supervisor is supportive, they are more willing to continue to show initiative without constant support.

What have YOU done to encourage initiative in your employees? I’d love to hear it. If you’d like to read more leadership articles, check my other blog posts here at – and follow me on LinkedIn. And let me know if you’d like to chat about leadership coaching.