How managers can foster initiative

Train your team to look beyond the playbook.
How managers can foster initiative

With thousands of customer interactions taking place daily or weekly, there is no way managers can outline the right way for employees to behave in every situation. For that reason, it’s usually more effective for leaders to foster initiative amongst their team, so individuals can decide for themselves when it makes sense to ditch the playbook in service of broader company goals.

“The rulebook is there to provide discipline and handle what will likely be 90% of the situations that employees will face, but we also need to communicate to people that sometimes the rules won’t apply, and they have to have the discretion to know when that is,” said Patrick M. Wright, director of the Center for Executive Succession and professor at the Darla Moore School of Business at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, South Carolina.

Referring to a research study he co-authored on proactive behaviour training, Michael Frese, professor at both the National University of Singapore Business School and Leuphana University of Lüneburg in Germany, outlined what he argued are the three essential properties of initiative: acting in a self-starting way, preparing for the long term, and overcoming barriers on the way towards goals.

While Frese acknowledged that teaching personal initiative is a contradiction in and of itself, he maintained that there is a way to do it. Here are a few tips on fostering initiative amongst your team:

Be clear about broader company goals. What is the overarching mission of your team? In most cases, that mission will centre on customer service and/or innovation, both of which benefit from independent, creative problem-solving.

Wright recalled the late Southwest Airlines founder Herb Kelleher’s idea that people often make mistakes, but as long as they make a mistake in the service of the customer, they were not going to be punished.

Some time ago, Wright was flying back from Mexico and ran into multiple flight delays. He noticed there was an earlier flight to his destination, but when he inquired about getting a seat, the staff member handling his request noted that over 100 seats were still available on the flight, a sign the flight would likely be cancelled. Breaking with company guidelines, which don’t allow for double-booking, the woman made an exception and booked Wright on the earlier flight, while allowing him to also keep his current itinerary in case of a cancellation.

“The rule said she can’t do it, but she looked at it and decided to break the rule,” Wright said. “That’s an example of somebody who took the initiative to serve the customer and, as a result, had a very satisfied customer.”

Establish boundaries so employees can toe the line. Wright used the analogy of a football match: If there are no rules and no boundaries, all you get is chaos, and people are afraid to do anything. But if team members know the boundaries, the rules of the sport, and the strategic priorities, they can recognise when it’s better to ditch the play and open themselves up for a shot.

“Have a strategy, but remember the goal is to score a goal, as opposed to simply running the play for the sake of the play,” he said.

Outside of the football analogy, this means that, in addition to having a clear company mission, managers should establish clear but rudimentary boundaries. Those boundaries can counterintuitively increase creative problem-solving by decreasing option paralysis.

Never punish errors made with good intentions. Perhaps the primary reason people choose not to show initiative is fear.

“They’re scared that if they take initiative, they’re somehow going to be punished for it,” Wright said. “It’s a lot easier and safer to live by the rules, because then you can blame it on the book.”

A sure way to stifle initiative is to lash out the moment someone breaks the rules with good intentions. Managers can say they want employees to take initiative, but if they punish someone for going outside the rules, they’re sending a message to the entire team that it’s safer to go through the motions.

“If the culture is such that errors are not forgiven, and people immediately blame, then of course people are going to show less initiative,” Frese said. “Whenever you try something new, you know you’re likely to make errors.”

As a manager, train yourself to resist reacting in the moment when an error is made, Wright advised. Instead, try to understand why it happened, and if the motivation was right, don’t punish the person who made the error.

Publicly reward initiative. In addition to surrendering your stick, be sure to provide ample carrots to reward employees when they show initiative.

That reward can be as simple as praising someone who did the wrong thing for the right reasons. Wright recommended praising the employee in front of the team as an example.

“Say to the team, ‘So-and-so kind of chucked the rule here to serve the customer, and even though I don’t want to advocate doing it that way, because what they did didn’t work out effectively, what I want to recognise is they took the initiative’,” Wright said.

Hannah Pitstick is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at