Encourage Initiative in Others
Change requires leadership, and every person, down to the most junior member of a team, can drive innovation and improvements in a team’s processes. This was precisely what John Wang, senior software engineer at Visa, remembers about the environment at his job after graduating from college. His manager fostered an atmo- sphere that supported experimentation and innovation, which allowed him and others to find little areas where they could improve existing processes and complete their assignments faster and more efficiently. One such area was the weekly backup process for the group’s main file server. John recounts,
As junior engineers, we were placed in charge of this job, under the supervision of a senior engineer. My group had a tape backup unit that would finish recording the first tape in the middle of the night. Unfortunately, the backup process required two tapes to complete the backup. We were forced to initiate the recording of the second tape after one of us got to the office the next morning, which delayed the backup process. My coworker and I wanted to change the process, and we explored
various alternatives. We found a better backup tape drive; however, this unit was quite expensive!
We were a little nervous about requesting this hardware upgrade, but since we had been previously encouraged to take the initiative to improve any processes during our induction into the department, we decided to offer our suggestion to our supervisor. To our surprise, he was very pleased that we had found a way to improve the backup process and immediately placed an order for the tape drive. He also mentioned our discovery to the manager. Our manager praised our initiative in finding a better way of running backups. This encouragement gave us clear positive feedback and the courage to find other suggestions over the next few years to improve our departmental processes. Indeed, this episode gave everyone the clear signal that suggestions were truly welcomed.
The lesson that John took to heart is one that leaders deeply appreciate: “giving everyone—even junior members of a team—the opportunity to take initiative can result in unexpected positive changes.” Another benefit John pointed out was that by allowing the junior engineers to work on this issue, their senior manager was able to focus his attention on other pressing issues, which benefited him individually and the group as a whole. “This principle is one that I have tried to implement in my own life,” John says, “giving people I work with a chance to do things differently than I would. This means I also get a chance to focus on other things that need my attention.”
As John’s experience illustrates, leaders seize the initiative them- selves and encourage initiative in others. They want people to speak up, offer suggestions for improvement, and be straightforward about their constructive criticism. Yet when it comes to situations that
G E involve high uncertainty, high risk, and high challenge, many people
feel reluctant to act, afraid they might make matters worse. We asked constituents about the extent to which their leaders
“seek out challenging opportunities that test his/her own skills and abilities.” We also asked them about the extent to which their leaders “challenge people to try out new and innovative ways to do their work.” Comparing those leaders who reported that they “almost always” challenge themselves and others to those who “almost never” or “sometimes” engaged in these behaviors yielded quite dramatic (and statistically significant) differences in how people felt about their workplaces. Those people who felt that they were challenged, and who observed that their leaders were also challenging them- selves, experienced between 25 to 35 percent stronger feelings of pride, motivation, and team spirit. The biggest difference between the two groups was in how they viewed their leaders’ effectiveness. The least challenging leaders earned evaluations from their constitu- ents that were nearly 40 percent lower than those received by leaders viewed as seeking out challenges for themselves and their teams.
There are a number of ways you can create conditions so that your constituents will be ready and willing to seize the initiative in tumultuous as well as tranquil times. First, create a can-do attitude by providing opportunities for people to gain mastery on a task one step at a time. Training is crucial to building people’s ability and their confidence that they can effectively respond to and improve the difficult situations they face. During periods of rapid change, it may seem as though there’s no time to stop for training, but this short-term thinking is sure to doom the organization. The best leaders know that the investment in training will pay off in the long term. People can’t deliver on what they don’t know how to do, so you have to upgrade capabilities continuously.
Another form of preparation is mental simulation.7 Playing a scenario through in your mind until you can picture it frame by frame is a terrific way to encourage and support initiative. Asking people to imagine the steps they will take before they enact them is a powerful heuristic strategy for giving people the confidence that they can act when the real situation requires it. It’s much the same as practicing fire drills, except that you run them in your head.
In addition, find ways for people to stretch themselves. Set the bar incrementally higher, but at a level at which people feel they can succeed. Raise it too high, and people will fail; if they fail too often, they’ll quit trying. Raise the bar a bit at a time, and eventually more and more people master the situation and build the self-confidence to continue moving the bar upward. You can also foster initiative by providing visibility and access to role models, especially among peers, who are successful at meeting the new challenges. Seeing one of their own succeed in doing something new and different is an effective way to encourage others to do it too.