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The surprising reason why your employees won’t take initiative (and what you can do to change it)

by Oct 12, 2020Attracting, developing and retaining staff, Leading yourself and your staff, Motivation

“Why won’t my staff take initiative?” Have you ever wondered this before? Perhaps you’ve been wondering this for a while now and you just can’t quite put your finger on where your early-days employees (who had the initiative and drive) have gone. Whether it’s a new issue or a longstanding one, don’t fret. Before you as an accountancy practice owner, pull your hair out because you feel as if you must ‘spoon-feed’ your people, here is how to encourage employees to take initiative as well as the reason why they might not be in the first place.

Why won’t my staff take initiative?

In one word: you. Now that might come as a shock or it may cause an immediate denial within you, but just hear us out.

If a staff member comes to you with a problem, do you tend to give them the solution and send them on their way? If they come to you really struggling with a task (and you know you can do it quickly), do you ever take it off them with a “give it to me, I’ll do it myself – it’ll be quicker?”

If you do this a lot and believe me, a lot of accountancy practice owners do, you’re essentially training your staff not to take initiative. You’re training them to come to you as soon as they get stuck because they know you’ll just solve it for them or take it off their shoulders completely. In short, you’re training them to be helpless.

Now, this is a really serious problem. It may not seem like it at first, taking a task or two off someone, but soon you’ll find that you have trained them to upwards delegate. Soon you’ll see that your already full plate is piled up with tasks that you should be passing down.

This is an issue in a normal working environment anyway, but now even more so now that firms (like many businesses) are moving rapidly to potentially a permanent virtual working model. The last thing you need when trying to adapt your business and manage a completely remote team is for them to keep coming to you every time it gets hard; that’s why it’s so essential to know how to encourage employees to take initiative.

How to encourage taking initiative

Once you’ve recognised what you’re doing (or not doing) when it comes to your employees not working things out for themselves, you now need to know how to encourage employees to take initiative. Here are 5 things that you can do.

1. Create a safe and supportive environment that is achievement-orientated

Employees don’t tend to take initiative because it incurs a certain amount of risk, a risk that, if it doesn’t pay off, will most likely result in punishment. Many companies tend to operate this way and as you can imagine, it doesn’t make employees confident or forthcoming with taking initiative.

So how can you overcome this? How can you advocate that it’s okay to make mistakes and to fail as long as they are learned from? In short, create a safe and supportive environment. Encourage your employees to take risks and to think outside the box. Show them that you are a proactive and innovative company that thrives on challenges. Recognise employees for taking risks, even if it didn’t work out, and encourage them to continue trying.

As Bill Gates once said, “How a company deals with mistakes suggests how well it will wring the best ideas and talents out of its people.” He was referring to repercussions here. If you support initiative, you have to also advocate that mistakes are a great platform to learn from. By relaxing repercussions to an opportunity for growth and learning, you won’t limit your employees to certain tasks and ideas, you’ll be encouraging them to be creative.

2. Set exciting goals and foster collaboration

It fills us with energy, working on an ambitious challenge, and having a point on the horizon to work towards helps us stay motivated. With this in mind, if you want your employees to start thinking for themselves, then you need to excite them.

Set different goals, exciting goals for your employees, and track the progress of these goals via an online collaboration tool. This way, everyone can see how far off they are from reaching their targets and this fosters a sense of collaboration and motivates everyone as a team. Have fun with this and make a point of celebrating (albeit virtually) when you’ve met the targets.

With the Coronavirus making a lot of us feel quite alone, this sense of camaraderie has never been so important. If you can foster collaboration, then you’ll soon see that your employees will start to work through potential issues between them.

3. Coach them through their mistakes

If you want to know how to encourage employees to take initiative, the key is to adapt your management style. As we mentioned previously, you need to resist the temptation to take tasks from your employees, but what we didn’t say is that you also need to avoid dismissing them and saying “no, you need to do it yourself.” What this means is that you need to take more of a coaching approach.

Instead of saying “I’ll do it, it will be quicker,” start asking “what would you do if I wasn’t here?” If you take more of a coaching approach and ask them to talk you through, if they were feeling that they knew how to do this, the steps they would take, you’ll see that they can come to the solution themselves. It just takes a bit more time. With some employees, they may come to the conclusion with you just rephrasing their question to them. With others, it may take you sitting down with them and sharing your screen with them over Zoom. You may have to watch them take each step and guide them when they go wrong. By guide, I don’t mean giving them the right answer but asking them “how do you think I knew that wasn’t right instantly? What could you do instead?”

Now we know that this will take some time for you initially, but believe me when I say that this initial investment is worth it. If you continue to respond to any questions from your employees with your own questions, you’ll draw the answer out of them until they don’t feel the need to come to you anymore.

4. Reward achievers 

Don’t forget to reward achievements, especially when it has come from someone taking initiative. We all love to be rewarded and praised for doing good work and this positive reinforcement will only serve to encourage the type of thinking and performance that you want.

Find the best way to reward your employees. It could be virtual rewards such as a certificate or a shout out in the company newsletter or even physical rewards such as a spa treatment or a box of chocolates. You could reward them with extra days off or the freedom to start their own projects. Did you know that Google has a 20% time policy? They give their employees the freedom and capacity (20% of the time) to work on their own initiatives beside their daily tasks. This helps them to stay motivated and passionate while at work.

5. Pave the way

Last but not least is leading by example. Be the change that you want to see in your firm because your employees embody you. If you’re getting involved and are excited and are staying positive, they will do the same. If you share new ideas and show how you are trying new approaches, then they’ll take your lead and will feel comfortable to do the same.

As well as behaving how you want your employees to behave, don’t forget to tell your employees how much you value them showing initiative and doing things without being prompted. Appreciation goes a long way. When you delegate as well, don’t forget to delegate the authority to make decisions. Good managers give employees the authority to take the initiative on certain things without prior approval.

Invest time now to foster initiative 

Make sure you’re not training your staff to be helpless and start training them to be able to think for themselves instead. Only when you do this will you stop wondering how to encourage employees to take initiative.

We’re not saying that this is an easy feat, but it’s a necessary one. So avoid the temptation of taking tasks off your employees and invest the time to coach them so that they come to a solution themselves. Believe us when we say that it will save you so much time in the long run and it’s also going to make your staff members take the initiative more often too. By adapting your management style, you can help your employees to step out of their comfort zone more often and it’s going to teach them that if they come to you, yes, they will get the answer, but they’re going to have to work for it.