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I was talking with my daughter recently about her new job and walking through the things she is doing and challenges she is facing. During the conversation, it was clear that she had some ideas she would like to do but wasn’t sure how to do them or even bring them up to her boss. She is a recent college grad, working with seasoned professionals and it sounded like she was feeling a bit intimidated working with people with so much more experience. After the conversation, it got me thinking about how hard and nuanced it is knowing when and how to take initiative…A lot depends on the leader, the culture of the org, the context of the current situation, and your self-confidence, let alone the quality of the idea.

So, is it better to follow directions or take initiative?  Following direction is table stakes – if you aren’t following direction, you won’t be there long. So that’s a given. However, if you aren’t taking initiative, then you are not delivering your full value and you are stunting your growth. So, is it better to follow directions or take initiative? It’s not an either/or, you must do both.

They say fortune favors the bold.  You can’t be bold without taking initiative. If you have lofty goals, you will need to take risks to get there.  You will have to get uncomfortable. You will have to take initiative. Keep in mind, good leaders are looking for their team members to take initiative. So, it’s likely they are wanting you to take initiative and be creative.

Here’s a few ways to do that.

The easiest approach, and a good place to start if you don’t have experience is to take direction and then take one more step. Can you go one step farther in that same direction? Or can you combine the direction you were given with another idea/component? You are delivering what you were told plus something completely different, and the two things together delivered more value.  Think of a right triangle.  If the direction you were provided was one of the short sides of a right triangle and you add another side and delivered the hypotenuse.

As your self-confidence improves, you can move to the next level…Taking initiative on something that isn’t related to the things you’ve been told to do. I think these are often the most powerful and impactful, but they can also be harder to get started or to accomplish.

The first step is framing your idea within the context of the goals of your leader or organization.  If the leader is good, they’ve made the goals clear and they want nothing more than people to come up with ideas on how to accomplish those goals. The leader’s style and organizational culture affects your ability to take initiative. In my view, the more comfortable you are to take initiative, the better the leader and org. What if you are working for a leader or organization that prevents you taking initiative? GET OUT!  Life is too short to be unable to achieve your full potential.

I recommend having a quiver of initiatives or ideas just waiting for the right context to take flight.  As I’ve learned throughout my career – It’s the context (aka the environment), not the quality of the idea that determines whether an idea takes off.  Knowing when and where to pitch the idea or take action is more of an art than a science, but trust your gut. If the time is right, act immediately – don’t hesitate!

So, the timing is right for this idea you have. Do you need to ask before you take initiative? How do you know when you can just do it or do you need permission? If you aren’t sure, you should probably ask, but before you do, build the case for the idea first so that you will get to yes.

When proposing your idea, start with the context of the goal of the leader or organization.  “I heard you talk about accomplishing X and I have an idea that I would like to try to help get us there. I want to share the idea with you and get your reaction.”  It can take courage to speak up and ask, but trust me – it’s worth it.

Proposing an initiative takes courage, so will every step along the way. How do you take initiative safely? How do you build the courage to try to take that first step? – Like lots of things, your mindset is the primary enabler or obstacle.

My experience is that my fear is holding me back much more than it should. If you suffer from this too, think about something recent that you didn’t do and list out why you didn’t do it. Likely you will come up with some emotional reasons.  Unpack those emotions – why are you feeling them? What’s behind them? What are they protecting you from? These emotions are important to feel and not ignore. They are there so you pay attention to the situation can make better decisions. Are they helping you or hindering you? Then think about countermeasures to overcome either the real risks that the emotions are protecting you from, or countermeasures to overcome the emotion.

Likely, you will have to overcome this fear of trying something new. Our amygdala is a powerful part of the brain, and its job is to keep us safe. Since trying something new is anything but safe, you are battling that part of the brain.  Thankfully the amygdala is less than .1% of your brain and, with a little effort, you can out-think it. Here’s some strategies to help you overcome that tiny part of your brain and overcome your fear:

  • Visualize success. How is that going to feel when you achieve it?
  • Remind yourself why that success is important to you.
  • Think of the first step as an experiment. (and each step that’s scary after that)
  • Make it safe to fail – lower the consequences of failure if possible – if you can start smaller and that gets you over your fear, do it.
  • Find a confidant you can talk to about it, someone who is encouraging, an advocate, a supporter. – share the idea and get reactions.
  • Start when you have the ‘reserves’…meaning Time and energy. If you are already worn out or burned out, you won’t have the energy to gain the momentum you need to persevere.

Now that you’ve started to act on your initiative, probably the hardest part, there’s likely still some bumps you will experience along the journey.  Here’s how to get past those:

  • Expect problems along the way! If you are expecting them, when they do occur, you won’t be so discouraged that you stop.
  • Be willing to learn and adjust.
  • Set a deadline for an early milestone, find a way to be held accountable, such as schedule a follow up when you will share a progress update.

Taking initiative is harder than it seems, but with a little courage, and practice, you will be successful at it… and when you are successful in taking initiative, you will achieve the goals you’ve set for yourself.

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