Op-Ed: How Systems Perpetuate an Epidemic Lack of Initiative

person writing on notebook

“Lacking Initiative”
“Doesn’t go beyond the bare minimum.”
“Has to be told exactly what to do and won’t problem solve if there’s an obstacle.”
“Expects opportunity to fall into their lap.”
“Gets a role and believes that’s the end of their effort to be in good graces.”

As someone that works as a part of many teams and organizations the word “initiative” is something that comes up quite a bit. As we all know, each team you work with, despite what they may portray on paper or in their mission, has their own unique system and dynamic. I firmly believe that what is expected and true of one organization is considered overkill at another. So, it’s not necessarily a fair assessment to have one singular “litmus test” for what is an acceptable company culture. A budding start-up’s culture can differ immensely from that of an established multinational corporation and so forth. That doesn’t mean one is more correct or necessarily more appropriate than the other, but that there are, instead, merits and pitfalls to a relaxed versus a rigid approach.

This is the start of how we confuse youth members of society. This is not to say that the blame falls slowly on the system and not the individual. It is easy and in fact a pleasant convenience to place all the blame on the conflicting ideals of education systems and work systems, but the final arbiter of knowing when initiative is valued and when it isn’t is in fact the duty of the person themself.

Beyond just the issue of immense variation from environment to environment, we must also admit that our educational systems have some partial blame. In many cases, educational environments (like K-12 systems) do not promote real initiative, but rather adherence to rules and norms. Students that meet the threshold for rules and norms with some creativity are praised whereas students with more innovative, unconventional ideas are discouraged. We reward students that are able to sit, quietly for hours through lessons and lessons but we do not incentivize them to take control of their own educational goals or to learn in a way that makes better sense to them.

person writing on white paper while
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Visualize the following (simplified to avoid the addition of added bureaucracy and nepotism which is rampant). Imagine that YOU are part of a company’s hiring team:
1. You spend hours setting up the details of a position that must be approved by HR and budgeted for by the company both in terms of hour allocation and pay.
2.You post the position on several forums perhaps on linkedin, your organization’s website and other related entities.
3.Now you are tasked with sifting through dozens-thousands of candidates for a role and making initial cuts. You look for their qualifications, presentation of their materials, fit for the role and company and last but not least… their demonstrated initiative
4. You call on a few candidates for an interview. If you (and they as well) are lucky then this will only be one interview, but in many cases for positions these days there are multiple rounds of interviews to grapple with.
5. Your questions at these interviews ask about their ability to problem solve, adapt, improvise. You ask about how they have overcome challenges and conflicts.
6. After the whole process is said and done, you onboard the new recruits. You make sure to emphasize the expectations of their new roles, their workflow process and details about the company’s vision and culture.

The key takeaway from this process is that hiring staff are really just probing, beyond your numerical cutoffs, for someone that demonstrates the elusive “initiative” factor. This is not an uncommon pursuit in the professional world. We constantly hear people, regardless of field, talking about ways to innovate, maximize and problem-solve. When faced with an issue, even beyond our scope of training, we are expected to handle it with grace, decorum and without disrupting our superiors.

There are countless trainings, seminars and more that seek to “train” initiative into an employee or supervisor. There are are also articles like this one, that frame a lack of initiative as a failing on the part of both the administrator and the employee.

Let’s unpack some of the proposed solutions to a lack of “initiative”:

  1. Communicating Clear Expectations– I know of very few professional places that do not undergo some form of training or onboarding. It is during such a time that you can send a reminder of everything stated verbally as a reference. Considering human working memory can only store a few pieces of information at a time, it is no surprise that running through everything verbally results in missing some key information.
  2. Encourage an Environment Where Initiative Blooms– Easier said than done. As stated earlier, each team and organization has its own unique dynamic so what works in one setting may not work in another. How do most companies reward creative problem solving? They don’t because if the problem is resolved excellently they won’t even be aware that there was a problem to begin with. So, in essence, how can a new employee be expected to balance reporting to their superiors with making sure to handle things without direction or bothering these very same superiors.
  3. Recognize Efforts when They Fail– Although pleasant and flowery- this doesn’t fly in many offices. Let’s be honest- if you had to bear some dreadful news to your superiors that would more than likely result in a demotion, reprimand or even the loss of your position. I have, in fact, never seen an organization that has had a positive and calm internal reaction to failure (even if it seemed ok on the exterior to an on-looker).
  4. Reward Success– This is probably the easiest of these suggestions to implement. Yet, it’s crucial to strike a balance so that everyone doesn’t just get a “participation trophy” for the bare minimum. It can, however, have some unintended consequences that management does not consider. Namely, these rewards incentivize and lead colleagues to work against each other to gain higher recognition – which is to the detriment of the organization. Furthermore, it’s exceedingly difficult to make sure to maintain the meritocracy aspect and not devolve into just rewarding personal favorites within the organization.

The onus very clearly falls largely on the systems in place, but also on the individual. It is feasible that a previous work environment did not encourage initiative, but rather prohibited it implicitly. Understanding this potential schema that an employee is coming to the position with can help employers better understand why (or why not) their new recruits are creatively problem solving. It should also be top of the list in onboarding questions. To encourage more honest responses, it may be wise to have some degree of anonymity maintained. It is, after all, an unwritten rule that bad mouthing a previous position (no matter how horrible) is a business faux pas and reflects poorly on the person. We need to make people feel more comfortable in sharing what went poorly in their past interactions and what went well in order to find a common ground.

Yet, I will say that the onus again (ad nauseum at this point) does fall partially on the individual. Despite these systems in place on the organization and educational level, an individual does retain their own independence in their free-time at the very least. The most successful people I know are people who, outside of their duties, worked on their most outlandish ideas in isolation until they were more refined.

Furthermore, it is not too challenging after some dozen or so encounters to form an opinion on the reception of change or criticism within an organization. From that insight, you are able to decide if you should share your opinion going forward and to whom. It’s easy to paint an organization with one brush, but the truth is that there are always anomalies to the company’s culture whether that is positive or negative. It’s a much more crucial life skill to be able to discern whether or not your superiors, for example, are receptive to a change as opposed to someone from another department that you seldom interact with and do not report to.

My plea is to not let whatever framework you are previously used to prevent you from continuing to come up with and implement ideas. If, in the unfortunate event, you are in a position or environment where your initiative is not rewarded and not encouraged then channel your creativity into personal pursuits or seek out positions in a better environment that will promote your own personal growth. A position with no potential chance of upward mobility on your own merits and with your own innovative ideas is a position you should want to avoid.

If you find you are lacking your initiative- go and find it and, if nothing else, use it to make your own small change in something you care about improving.

Published by Magda Wojtara

Magda Wojtara is Junior at the LSA Honors College at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor on a pre-med track with a major in Neuroscience. In her free time, she write articles, volunteers at a chronic pain outpatient facility with UM Medicine, does research, competes in HOSA, and, of course, enjoys photography and singing. In her spare time she manages her own travel and lifestyle blog: @journeythedestiantion on instagram and journeythedestination.weebly.com

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