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Why Won't My Employees Take Initiative?

One of the questions I hear repeatedly is, "Why won't my employees take initiative?" I've found that managers hold four faulty beliefs about employee initiative:

1. Managers assume their employees know, or should know, that the organization wants them to take initiative. Only when you help employees overcome their fears, by creating a safe environment to take risks, where failures are celebrated as milestones of personal growth, and where authority is shared through trust, will your employees understand that you appreciate initiative. Then, they'll respond the way you hope.

2. Managers presume that all employees welcome the freedom to take initiative. People have an innate desire to contribute, but that passion conflicts with our natural instinct to protect ourselves against things we fear--things like rejection, failure, embarrassment, or retaliation. Whereas many people embrace the provision of control, others are overcome by the perceived emotional danger of empowerment.

3. Managers conclude that employees who avoid taking initiative are lazy. Sure, some employees are lazy; for them, empowerment means extra work. But it's important to avoid mistaking caution for laziness. Some workers have been burned before. Someone empowered them so they took some initiative; then, the power was stripped away and they were criticized or humiliated. "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me."

4. Managers think their work is done once they've given away their authority. Empowering leaders understand that by giving away authority, they actually increase their own responsibility. While it's unnecessary to dictate step-by-step instructions, you do need to explain objectives, outline parameters and timetables, install appropriate checks and balances, and provide all necessary resources. And expect to repeat yourself as many times as the employee needs.

Understand and avoid those four assumptions and you'll join the leaders who Freely Give Away Their Authority.
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