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Take the initiative: A how-to guide in 10 steps

January 13, 2022 - 14 min read

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What makes a team member proactive?

Why should I care about taking the initiative?

When is it the right time to take the initiative at work?

10 ways to take the initiative at work

What causes lack of initiative and how to overcome that

Making your way

Are you doing more or less than what's expected of you at work? When you see a potential problem, do you bring it up? Do you get excited about ways your team can improve? Do you share your ideas or keep them to yourself? 

If you’re doing more and speaking up, it sounds like you're trying to become a team member who takes the initiative in the workplace.

What is initiative and what does it mean to take it?

Taking initiative means thinking proactively about tasks—  not just to check them off a list, but to get them done well. It's about going the extra mile on the basic tasks you're assigned, thinking through complications, and taking on work before someone asks you to.

Taking initiative means noticing opportunities and taking action.

Another word for taking initiative might be “ownership.” At BetterUp, for example, “radical ownership” means that we are fully responsible for our work and that we welcome the opportunity to learn from it and improve when it doesn’t go well.

If you’re the type of employee who takes responsibility and pride in their work, it will benefit both your team and your own career goals. Plus, you will likely experience more satisfaction in your job.

To excel at taking initiative, you must be a proactive team member. Let's dive into a few characteristics that define a proactive team member.

What makes a team member proactive?

Why should I care about taking the initiative?

If you’re doing everything you were hired to do, you might be wondering why you would ever want to take on more. This is where it might help to reframe your thinking a little. When you think about taking the initiative to get things done, don’t think of it as increasing your workload.

Think of it as becoming more valuable and relevant and positioning yourself for growth. Depending on your work, you might also think of it as achieving an important outcome.

Besides establishing yourself as a valuable team member, taking initiative can impact you and your work in many positive ways. 

But your impact reaches beyond your workplace too. Take a look at these main reasons to take the initiative and imagine yourself trying them. 

  • Makes you stand out from the rest of the competition
  • Builds confidence in your professional life and personal life
  • Improves your chances for promotions and career growth
  • Strengthens your relationship with your team members
  • Helps with problem-solving 
  • Boosts happiness and job satisfaction for you and your workplace
  • Creates better critical thinking and problem-solving skills

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When is it the right time to take the initiative at work?

Although you may encounter many opportunities to take initiative,  choose your time wisely. Think about when you can best speak up and act so that you are more likely to be effective and also have space to learn from the experience.

When you've mastered your required tasks

It’s great to take initiative in your primary role — there’s always room for improvement and new ideas. But, make sure you understand your core job, and you’re doing it well, before taking initiative too far afield. 

It's never a good idea to take on more than you can handle if you aren't pretty sure you can deliver. Remember, every single employee is responsible for completing certain tasks before taking on something more.

Once you've finished the non-negotiables of your own agenda, start looking for where you have interest and enthusiasm to take initiative on other tasks. Remember, even on your core tasks, there’s almost always room to take more initiative.

Think about how efficiently you're working and completing your tasks each day. If you feel like you’re more often drowning than surfing, focus on your core skills and practices before you raise your hand to take charge of other tasks. 

When you see a problem in your workplace

One of the benefits of being collaborative in your work environment is using more minds to help problem-solve. If something isn't working and you have ideas about how to fix it, taking initiative can help your team. You don’t have to “know” for certain or always be right. Offer your ideas. Be open to others building on and adapting your ideas. Commit yourself to driving a solution, even if it isn’t your own. 

Taking initiative doesn’t necessarily mean having the answers but it does mean taking action. Team members around you will recognize that you're a reliable, collaborative, and giving coworker who leads by example.

When you understand the limits of your authority and experience

Before you jump into action in the name of taking initiative, consider if you're qualified to do so. Certain decisions might need a supervisor's permission if they’ll have a significant impact. Others will benefit from consulting with others in the company who might have relevant expertise.

If a task requires a particular skill set or level of authority to carry out, you need to make sure you're capable. 

You’ll also need to put your safety first if you're using equipment you're unfamiliar with using. Asking for help or clarification is part of taking initiative and better than assuming you can do it all by yourself.

 Ideally, your manager or supervisor gives you some guidance and guardrails so that you know what is most important to the company and what types of decisions or actions are off-limits. 

When your well-being is in a good place

Taking extra initiative can stretch you beyond your comfort zone and tap into passion or ambition that can also leave you feeling drained or approaching burnout. Recognizing when you've done enough is important. After a long day of work, you could be tired and ready to rest. Pushing harder to keep going can have the negative effect of leaving you depleted and doing a poor job.

Listen to your body and energy levels before taking on different projects. Even if you have to say no to an opportunity or schedule something on tomorrow’s to-do list, it's often better than overworking and under-delivering. 

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10 ways to take the initiative at work

Sometimes, how to take initiative at work can be obvious. Opportunities to be proactive and collaborative in the workplace could be right in front of you. Your boss could mention that they hope someone could help them with a task or get something accomplished. 

Other times, you might need to look a little harder within your workplace. Here are 10 ways you can become a proactive employee and take the initiative at work:

  1. Voice your ideas
  2. Be curious and learn about the work going on around you
  3. Find a new opportunity for improvement within your workplace
  4. Address any problems you notice
  5. Step in when someone needs help, and ask about team progress
  6. Offer help when training new employees
  7. Make an effort to get to know your coworkers
  8. Ask for clarification when you're confused 
  9. Speak up during team meetings
  10.  Request constructive criticism and feedback on your work

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What causes lack of initiative and how to overcome that

People don't take the initiative due to various internal and external factors. Many of them can be resolved or overcome in some way.

Internal causes for lack of initiative

When someone is new in their workplace, they might not want to rock the boat. They may fear speaking up or misspeaking, self-doubt, and a lack of self-confidence. Even experienced employees can feel like they don’t know enough to step up.

Team members may also view taking the initiative as extra work and not be interested in the benefits. If you notice that you tend to shy away from being a proactive team member, ask yourself why. Try to make purposeful contributions that matter to you — either because of the outcomes or because of the personal career benefit — when you can. 

External causes for lack of initiative

The environment you work in and those around you can impact how proactive you are. People who constantly complain and don't respect and appreciate their team members often stop people from taking the initiative. If nobody has team spirit or long-term visions of their work, it's harder to encourage people to be proactive. 

Occasionally, your supervisors might be threatened or put off by your willingness to work harder or your desire to grow and succeed. Remember that this isn't on you. You shouldn't hinder your growth opportunities just because others don't want to see you excel. It is worth checking in honestly with yourself to confirm that you are delivering on your current responsibilities as expected. 

How to overcome a lack of initiative

Whatever the reasons stopping you from taking the initiative, you can overcome them. Like any other obstacle or aspect you want to improve, it takes time and effort. Seek input (and moral support for trying new things) from a few trusted co-workers or even friends outside of work. Objective guidance from a coach or mentor can help, too. 

Taking initiative doesn’t have to mean always going it alone or chasing the spotlight. But it does mean being willing to take the first steps.

  •  Internal Inhibitors: It's all about building confidence and experience and finding your voice. You have helpful skills and perspectives to offer in your workplace. Asking questions when you're confused doesn’t make you look bad or lazy. It shows that you’re engaged and willing to be a team player and overcome your challenges.
  • External inhibitors: Use your confidence to speak up and be willing to lead. If a team member or supervisor seems to be throwing up obstacles or putting you down, you need to address it.

    Consider whether they are trying to guide you or put the brakes on your plan because they have more context — in which case, seek their input or enlist them in your efforts. If you find yourself in an environment where taking initiative isn’t welcome or valued, focus on your next career move. You should never feel ashamed to pursue new career plans and learn new skills — including leadership skills.

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Making your way

Nobody will hand you immediate success. It's up to you to learn to be proactive in any way you can to help yourself, which includes being kind to yourself and knowing how much you can handle in a day.

If you're looking to learn how to become a more vital, more proactive team member and have the skills to pursue your goals, BetterUp can help. The coaches we pair you with are excited to help you with a personalized plan to help you get where you need to go.

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Published January 13, 2022

Madeline Miles

Madeline is a writer, communicator, and storyteller who is passionate about using words to help drive positive change. She holds a bachelor's in English Creative Writing and Communication Studies and lives in Denver, Colorado. In her spare time, she's usually somewhere outside (preferably in the mountains) — and enjoys poetry and fiction.

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