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A Team of Initiators Isn’t What You Actually Want

Something I hear fairly regularly from leadership teams, is that they “just want people to take initiative.” And much of the time what they’re really saying is “I just want my employees to go over there and do their work without needing me so much.” They envision if they had an employee team like that then things would move along so much better and sh*t would actually get done — with less headaches and pestering questions.

And I get it. It’s hard to be a leader. You’re responsible for your work, supporting your teams, managing expectations, and ensuring everyone is aligned and productive. You’re held to higher standards, have ultimate accountability, and the craziest schedule. Is it too much to ask your employees to give you some relief by initiating their work and solving some problems for themselves? You’re expected to be a self-starter, why can’t they do it too?

Here’s the thing. We have leadership teams for a reason. If everyone was held to the same high standards and if everyone was expected to be a self-starter, then we wouldn’t need leaders. Employees need management and leadership (some more than others). But we can’t deny that fact.

And here’s the other thing. Having an employee team of self-starters and initiators sounds nice, but it’s not what you actually want. I promise.

Most leaders think they want a team of employees who are independent self-starters, who fill their day with work, and solve their own problems. And sure, you want some employees who take initiative. You just don’t want a whole lot of them.

When asking an employee to take initiative, what many leaders are really seeking is for them to be more independent. To determine their own priorities, make decisions, solve-problems, and take ownership of results. If that’s what it looked like then we’d have no concrete priorities, there would be constant conflict in opinion and decision-making, and achieving outcomes would be slow and painful and chaotic.

I don’t want to disregard that having employees who take some initiative can bring numerous benefits to productivity and efficiency. A level of autonomy helps them develop their skills and enhance their performance. However, an excess of it can lead to several challenges within departments or cross-departmentally. And these challenges can occur on a small scale during daily actions or projects, or on a larger scale when we’re talking organization-wide goals and initiatives. Here are a few of them:

  1. Managerial Challenges: While the idea of having employees who are more independent and take initiative sounds appealing, it can also create challenges for a leader as they navigate differing opinions on project approaches, which can result in conflicts that take time and attention away from the real goals.
  2. Lack of Coordination and Collaboration: When too many individuals take independent actions without proper coordination, it can lead to confusion and conflicts among employee teams. Differing priorities may overlap or contradict each other, and this misalignment fosters confrontation and conflict, that weakens team cohesion. This can also lead to the creation of silos within the organization — Employees may become overly focused on their own projects, hindering communication and collaboration between different departments or teams.
  3. Problems with Resource Allocation: Achieving goals and completing projects require resources such as time, money, and manpower. When there are multiple independently initiated goals and projects happening simultaneously, resources can become spread too thin. When everything is willy-nilly it hinders the successful completion of any single project. And important projects might be neglected or receive inadequate attention.
  4. Resistance to Change: Self-starters may find themselves too focused on their own priorities and become resistant to changes or suggestions from others, because of the level of ownership they take. Their unwavering commitment can hinder the adoption of new ideas or improvements that could benefit their direct team or the organization as a whole.
  5. Burnout and Stress: Some employees speak up when they’re tired or on the verge of burnout (whether they’d use that term or not). And some employees don’t speak up or even recognize it. Employees who are expected to be independent and take their own initiative can find themselves with increased stress levels leading to burnout. Without enough direction or guidance, leadership is unable to keep a pulse on those team members who need support and don’t ask for it.

Ultimately, what leaders actually want, is to shape a team of high-performers, rather than high-producers.

High-producers are who you get when you’re focused on creating a bunch of independent, self-starting, initiators. People who just do the work without needing their leader so much. High-performers however, are teams of employees that drive growth and progress. A high-performing team has a greater influence on the organization’s success because they are taught how to focus on goals and achieve results together. They have critical thinking skills, ask questions, offer ideas, communicate, and collaborate. They have enough confidence to maintain accountability and seek support when they’ve made an error. These teams meet expectations consistently, and exceed expectations on occasions that require it.

And leadership teams are who shapes these thriving and high-performing teams. They don’t do it themselves.

Taking initiative can be a great trait for team members who are high-performers. But to be clear, having employees with initiative does not mean that they do not require oversight and support. Guiding and harmonizing a team of self-starters requires a delicate balance between the desire to take hands-off and empower them, with the need to provide adequate support and guidance. This allows leaders and owners to optimize team performance, while mitigating the challenges that can arise from having too many proactive employees.

Want to shape a team like that but not sure where to start? Start here.

Onward,

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