What to do when someone tells you to "take initiative"

I have always hated the phrase “Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions!”. It feels lazy. It incentivizes people to sweep things under the rug if they can’t figure out what to do. It doesn’t give any useful direction to the person bringing you problems, because if they had solutions, they probably would have brought them already! At its best, it’s unhelpful, at its worst, it’s actively harmful.

I have similar, but less strong issues with the idea of telling someone to “take more initiative”. That also feels lazy. Particularly when it’s the answer to someone looking for a promotion or generally looking for more responsibility. If one of my reports comes to me asking what they can do to get promoted, they’re taking more initiative right now! They just don’t know what to do.

There’s a lot of overlap between these two situations. Someone is coming to their manager, looking for direction. Their manager is frustrated because it feels like their report hasn’t done any of the legwork to “earn” an answer. It’s like when someone comes to you for debugging help with nothing more than “it’s broken, what should I do?”. Coaching them with “what were you trying to do?”, “what happened instead?”, and “what have you tried to fix it?” helps, but gets old real quick if you have to keep doing it.

For me, two concepts helped me understand the intention behind “take more initiative” and subsequently gave me a path forward for actually doing it - Circles of Responsibility and Levels of Initiative.

Circles of Responsibility

Circles of Responsibility

You can think of circles of responsibility as expanding circles with “definitely, 100%, this is my job” in the middle, things that you have absolutely nothing to do with on the outside, and an ambiguous gradient of responsibility in the middle.

For example: if you’ve been tasked with building some kind of survey data import tool, responsibility would break down as follows:

  • Definitely your job - building the tool
  • Maybe your job - making sure that the person eventually using the tool actually has data that matches the spec you’ve been given and you’re building the tool around
  • Not your job - going out into the world and conducting the survey yourself to gather the data

If you’re being told to “take more initiative”, the project would probably be running a lot better if you were thinking about how the tool you’re building will ultimately end up being used, and making sure that it’s actually up to the job.

Levels of Initiative

Levels of Initiative

No one really knows how many levels of initiative there are. Some people say four, some say five, and some go as high as seven! The model I like best comes from The 8th Habit by Stephen R. Covey.

Each level from bottom to top is indicative of a greater level of initiative.

Where these two concepts get interesting is where they overlap. Starting from “not my job” and moving inward should correspond pretty directly to an increasing level of initiative.

  • Wait until told - this is basically no initiative. If something is definitely not your job, it’s appropriate to wait until you’re told to do it before it even enters the conversation.
  • Ask - still pretty low initiative. “Should I do that?” and “What should I be doing?” should be reserved for areas that feel pretty far outside your scope of responsibility, but do show that you’re aware they exist and you’re thinking about them.
  • Make a recommendation - “I think we should…” on something outside your immediate responsibility is great. You’ve identified a problem, you’ve brought a solution, and you’ve made your manager very happy.
  • “I intend to” - This is a subtle improvement over making a recommendation, but since discovering this framework, it’s one that’s entered my vocabulary a lot. It’s different in two ways: First, it gives me an active role in the solution. “I intend to”. Second, it doesn’t require a response. If I make my intentions known and no one tells me not to, I can effectively take that as permission.
  • Do it and report immediately - This is for things that are definitely your job, but near the edges and overlapping with other people’s jobs pretty heavily.
  • Do it and report periodically - Most things that are your responsibility will probably land here. Very little at work happens in a vacuum, and it’s nice to remind people how great a job you’re doing every now and then.
  • Do it - Breathing, putting on pants in the morning, etc. These things are 100% on you buddy.

How to take initiative

If you are a manager - if one of your reports comes to you looking to take on more responsibility, you can do more than just tell them to “take initiative”. Share these concepts with them and discuss how they are relevant in this person’s role. Take a bit of time and workshop with them - what are their current responsibilities? What responsibilities are just outside that radius? What would it look like to dip their toe in the water of doing more? You will often find that there’s a mismatch as early as the “definitely my job” circle. Correct that and then help them take the next steps in growing their circles in ways that are beneficial for everyone.

If you are being told to take more initiative - basically that same workshopping, but you’ll probably have to do it on your own. Think back to past projects you’ve been on, what’s gone well, and more importantly, what’s gone poorly? What problems came up and who owns the steps that would have prevented them? If no one, can it be you? If someone is already there, how can you support that person to better prevent them in the future? For both of those situations, make sure to communicate your intention to step up with anyone it might affect. This announcement serves two purposes: 1) you’ll never get credit for work people don’t know you’re doing, and 2) it’ll keep you from stepping on toes or duplicating work if someone else thinks these are their problems and was planning on doing something about it.