Too Gung Ho: When Does Initiative Cross the Line?

Generalist or Specialist: How Can You Best Serve Your Team? by Laura Stack #productivity

Employers and business leaders need people who can think for themselves — who can take initiative and be the solution to problems. — Steven Covey, American business writer.

While I’ve always stressed the importance of taking initiative and owning your job, I’ll bet there have been times when you’ve faced trouble for trying to do just that. Most managers and authority figures say they want initiative, and the majority really do. But the fact remains: some aren’t as keen about it as they claim—especially when you color outside the lines. If you take too much initiative, you can become a bother, break their process, or run afoul of micromanagers.

Ultimately, how much initiative you should take at work depends on a number of factors. So before you weigh in on something or just jump in willy-nilly, keep these things in mind:

  1. Back your best ideas only. Before you take initiative, whether in terms of offering suggestions or actually taking action, your idea had better be top-notch and well-thought-out. Breaking a process or embarrassing your team because your half-baked idea failed can backfire on you.
  1. Remember your manager hears lots of ideas. Given the standard advice about taking initiative, he or she may receive dozens a week from your coworkers. Give your supervisor time to consider yours, and don’t pout if it’s rejected. Your company may have already tried something similar in the past. It’s also possible leadership chose the process or method currently used after extensive testing, or they may have another reason for doing things their way. So unless your idea has a new tweak, they may not want to revisit it again just yet.
  1. Consider the company culture first. The leaders of some companies just don’t appreciate initiative. They have their set ways of doing things, and don’t want your input as they steer the ship. So unless you’re headed for an iceberg or can prove your case easily, restrain yourself. On the other hand, if the company actively encourages initiative, stuff the suggestions box with your best ideas. 
  1. Remember that micromanagers respond poorly to initiative. It disrupts their meticulous planning and love of oversight. After the publication of a recent blog entry extolling the virtues of initiative at jobs site, a legal secretary commented that taking too much initiative with her micromanaging supervisor had gotten her demoted.
  1. Don’t step on toes. Before you do something requiring initiative, be sure it’s not someone else’s job. That person may prove fiercely protective of that task, and will complain to others if you try to help—especially if they depend on the task for job security.
  1. Consider the repercussions. It may be better to beg forgiveness than ask for permission in some cases, but not when you embarrass or damage the company. If there’s a possibility of causing havoc by taking initiative with something, back off. 
  1. Communicate and coordinate. If you think too far ahead and take too much initiative, you may interfere with or derail a program or process already in place. This is one of those things to discuss with your manager. Your initiative may fit in with what leadership already has planned if you take action at the right time.
  1. Don’t overdo your assignments. Although I believe in over-delivering when possible, it’s usually unnecessary within the corporate structure. In fact, it may backfire on you: your manager may wonder why you’ve bothered with all the extras, when you could have been spending the time on other tasks.

Onward ho! 

Despite the need for it, the process of exercising initiative can be a minefield; it all depends on where you work and whom you work for. In the perfect world, reasonable initiative would be encouraged everywhere. But some organizations just don’t believe in encouraging (much less allowing) worker initiative—and you can go over the top if you don’t think it through. So before you try to make a change for the better, think about whether or not it will be appreciated, and how far you can go with it. Common sense and your knowledge of the corporate culture will serve you well here. If you can’t be sure how the company will receive your action, discuss it with coworkers first and, if possible, your manager.

© 2015 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, a.k.a. The Productivity Pro®, helps professionals achieve Maximum Results in Minimum Time®. For over 20 years, her keynote speeches and workshops have helped leaders boost personal and team productivity, increase results, and save time at work. Laura is the author six books, most recently Execution IS the Strategy. Widely regarded as one of the leading experts in the field of performance and workplace issues, Laura has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and USA Today. Connect via her website, Facebook, or Twitter.