Encouraging initiative, Part 1

Wouldn't it be cool if your employees were psychic and knew exactly what you wanted them to do without direction? They would just go about their business, making excellent decisions, saving money, providing superior customer service - you name it. Or course, if this was the case, the bean counters might say, "Why do we need managers?" And naturally, we don't want that.

Yet it's funny how we sometimes operate as if our employees actually were psychic. We might know exactly what we want them to do, but either we don't explain it clearly or we forget to tell them altogether. Not exactly setting them up for success, eh?

I recently spoke with Bob Nelson, founder and president of Nelson Motivation and one of the leading authorities on motivating and inspiring employees. I asked him how we could go about not only encouraging employee initiative, but also supporting their efforts. He cited a survey that found that 68% of employees polled had been asked to take initiative in making decisions, but only 14% had been given the actual ability to do so.

"What I often find is our talk exceeds our walk as managers," Nelson says. "Almost like rote we say what needs to be important, to take initiative, but we often don't go beyond that announcement."

Nelson offers two keys for encouraging initiative: "You want to provide some guidelines on how they can do it without telling them what to do," he says. "And reward and recognize when they do take initiative."

The first step is setting clear goals. "All performance starts with clear goals," he says. "You can't just announce it, you have to put it out there and keep putting it out there and create goals around it and make people comfortable."

Make it a philosophy, like they do at Intel. Nelson says Intel promotes "intellectual honesty." Employees are told that if at any time they hear something that doesn't make sense, they are expected to speak up to their boss, co-worker or team and state why they think it's wrong. "Because they ask for it," Nelson says of intellectual honesty, "they get it."

Next week, we'll look at another company's initiative barometer.

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