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Initiative Paradox

A big trap that interferes with initiative is what researcher David Campbell refers to as the Initiative Paradox.2 As a consultant, I get this question all the time: How do we get our employees to show more (or any) initiative? I think the frustration managers have is mostly to do with the way this initiative paradox works.

I have illustrated the paradox in Fig. 11.1.

Here is my explanation of the how the initiative paradox works. At the outset of a new organization, leaders and team members are “on the same page.” The leader wants each team member to exercise appropriate initiative. And team members are willing to be proactive and enterprising in the right circumstances.

Initiative paradox

Fig. 11.1 Initiative paradox

Leaders consequently urge their team members to act with initiative. But team members are skeptical; they aren’t too sure whether the leader genuinely wants them acting in enterprising ways. So team members play it safe and elect not to be proactive; they instead rely on their leader to give them direction.

The leader observes this reactive behavior and infers that team members don’t really want to be proactive or show initiative. They become frustrated with this lack of enterprise. This reactive behavior results in the leader rushing in and being more directive and autocratic than they intended in the first place. Team members observe what they interpret as micro-managing from their leader. This directive leadership behav?ior validates the team member’s initial skepticism. The team member assumes, in other words, they were right in their original judgment; that is, management wasn’t really serious about them displaying initiative. And now, it’s the employees’ turn to feel frustrated. So the initiative paradox is based on misunderstandings—and the reinforcement of these misunderstandings—about the motives of the other party in the employment relationship.

Enabling employees to make enterprising decisions—as complex as it seems from the initiative paradox—is nevertheless the cornerstone of agile performance. The challenge of resolving this initiative paradox involves greater numbers of employees and their managers across more and more industry groups than it did in the twentieth century. The key to unlocking this paradox is communication; more specifically, removing communication barriers between leaders and team members.

Better communication means equipping employees to be more knowledgeable, self-sufficient, participative, adaptive, flexible, efficient, and responsive to their rapidly changing surroundings. As I reiterate, employee collaboration is well understood, if not well practiced. Facilitating employee initiative is a perennial challenge for organizational leaders across all industries.

The crux of the problem is this: How does the leader encourage team members to express their initiative when it is required? And simultaneously, how does the leader ensure the same people follow company guidelines and processes when needed? Managers have used many tactics to resolve the initiative paradox; company rules have been introduced, the workplace regulated, policies formulated, and guidelines offered. Some tools have worked, but most have failed.

I’m sure you can think of examples where you’ve observed too much initiative—or more likely—other occasions where not enough enterprise was shown. Getting the balance right is more difficult than it appears.

Let me illustrate the initiative paradox in a typical scenario.

Consider a retail franchise business. Employees will often talk about “ownership,” when they refer to their involvement in a retail outlet. These shop bound employees are probably multi-skilled or flexibly deployed in all the tasks and activities involved in running the retail operation. These same employees typically question what they think is needless interference by head office in the running of their store. This “intrusion” may involve such things as policy making, customer interaction, purchasing, stock control, and implementing new systems and procedures. Head office’s involvement, more often than not, causes tension in the retail outlets.

Based on head office input, employees in the stores assume that their initiative to make decisions is being sabotaged. And because employees think there’s unnecessary interference in their day-to-day store operations, they are less inclined to be proactive. Management observes this lack of resourcefulness; they assume that employees in the stores can’t, or won’t, act with initiative when needed. Head office becomes irritated with frontline employees, whom they think are too reliant upon management to make simple operational decisions. So management reluctantly feels justified in making decisions in operational matters. This vicious cycle leads to negative feelings all round.

So how is the cycle broken?

According to David Campbell, there are four practical strategies that help to overcome the initiative paradox and open the lines of communication between employees and management. These are:

  • • goal alignment,
  • • boundary refinement,
  • • sharing information, and
  • • active accountability.3

Let’s take a look at each of these strategies.

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