Recipe for Good Management: Allow Employees to Take Initiative

    April 15, 2002

What makes a good manager? There are all sorts of definitions about management that attempt to describe what a manager does. Some of my favorites include “getting things done through others,” “being paid to make the difficult decisions,” and “protecting one’s people from the rest of the organization.” Yet I believe a better definition might be found in focusing on what a manager does NOT do. For example, a good manager does not solve employees’ problems for them, he does not ask his employees to do things he would not do himself, and he does not take credit for their ideas or work.

One of the best descriptions of a good manager, however, can be found in observing “what happens when he’s not around.” It’s easy to manage when you are right there working with employees. You can directly state your expectations and what you would like done and your employees can ask questions and once they are clear, do what was asked of them. Chances are
if you’re looking over their shoulder they’ll take extra pains to act with a sense of urgency and to see that the job is done right.

A more significant test of how well you manage, however, looks at what happens when you are NOT present. Do employees keep focused and energized to do their best work possible? Does the work still get done in a timely, efficient manner? Are employees creative in overcoming problems and challenges as they arise? Are customers treated as if the business depends upon them? Such behaviors do not occur by chance, but are a direct reflection of the way employees are managed. Says Amanda Lathroum, Manager of Software Services, Netscape Communications Corporation, “Management isn’t about doing all the work yourself or telling people everything they should do; it’s about getting your team to make decisions for themselves and consider new angles.”

To encourage employees to exercise initiative in their jobs and to take risks without fear of retribution, Richard Zimmerman, the chairman and CEO of Hershey Foods of Hershey, Pennsylvania, created a special award: the Exalted Order of the Extended Neck. According to Zimmerman, “We wanted to reward people who were willing to buck the system, practice a little entrepreneurship, who were willing to stand the heat for an idea they really believe in.” The award has been given out on numerous occasions including to a maintenance worker who devised a way to perform midweek cleaning on a piece of machinery without losing running time.

At 3M (Minnesota, Mining & Manufacturing) in St. Paul, Minnesota, employees are encouraged to develop and implement new products. Professional staff members whose ideas are given the nod by management to build their own businesses within the company. Those who are successful in their efforts are given promotions and pay raises. There is no penalty for those who are not successful. Employees are motivated by the opportunity to see their ideas come to fruition, and a large portion of the company’s sales now come from products introduced through this program.

Or take, for example, Kris Carmichael, an order clerk working for 800-CEO-READ (formerly Schwartz Business Books) in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Kris received an order one day for a particular book from a large pharmaceutical company located several states away. She immediately noticed that the book was out of print and took it upon herself to call the author in Holland, purchase a copy of the book and have it shipped directly to the client. No one asked
Kris to take this extra initiative for this client, it was just part of how she typically approached her work each and every day.

What Kris didn’t know was that this particular client was conducting a market test of sorts and had given the identical order to four other companies. The book Kris ordered arrived on the client’s desk before anyone at the other organizations even had a chance to report back that it was out of print. The pharmaceutical company was so impressed with the initiative taken by Kris
that they now do all their corporate orders through 800-CEO-READ.

How do you get an employee like Kris to take initiative? The answer may stem more from what you don’t do as a manager, than what you do. If you want employees to take responsibility, you have to treat them responsibly. If you want employees to act like they’re in charge, you have to let them be in charge-even when you are around.

Although delighted with her behavior, Jack Covert, president of 800-CEO-READ, was not surprised with the initiative Kris displayed. He told me, “Our employees are able to use their best judgment to act on their best intentions because they are encouraged and supported in doing so.” Jack added, “Our employees know that even if they make a mistake, no matter what, they always have the support of their manager. That is why our employees provide superior service everyday.This is simply what our company is based on.” While 800-CEO-READ does not have a formal incentive program for those employees who take initiative, they do give on-the-spot rewards for employees who truly go above and beyond the call of duty.

Jack’s comments reminded me of a comment by Bill Gates, chairman & CEO of Microsoft Corporation when he said: “You can tell a lot about the long-term viability of any organization by how it handles mistakes.” If you correct, criticize and ridicule employees when they do something wrong, sure they likely won’t make that mistake again. But in the process you stifle the employee’s willingness to take risks and initiative to try something new and untested, and to learn from the attempt so as to be able to do it even better the next time. Instead, you diminish the employee’s pride, self-esteem, and interest in being their best. What’s the cost to the organization? More than you could imagine.

The secret to getting employees to take initiative when you are not around is to let them take initiative when you are around. The best managers thus manage the least. They let employees find the best way to get their work done and actively support them in the process. It’s always the employee’s decision as to if they are going to do their best work. You can’t force their decision to be their best, but you can encourage it, support them in the process, and thank them when they get the results you desired.

Tips to Take Away

How can you encourage your employees to take more initiative more often?

1. State that you want and need employees to take initiative— Most employers assume that employees automatically know-or should know-what would be in the organization’s best interests, when in reality such perspective comes from much discussion, learning and involvement of all employees.

2. Notice and recognize employees when they take initiative-If you want to see the behavior again you need to notice and thank employees when they make an extra effort or do something that needed to be done without being asked.

3. Do not focus exclusively on employee mistakes-Look for the bigger picture of their intent, their learning and their growth as an employee. Criticism causes compliance and resentment on the part of employees.

Bob Nelson, Ph.D., is president of Nelson Motivation Inc and a best-selling author of 1001 Ways to Reward Employees (now in its 52nd printing), 1001 Ways to Energize Employees, The 1001 Rewards & Recognition Fieldbook, The Management Bible among others, and teaches organizational behavior at the Rady School of Management at the University of California, San Diego. For more information or to register for Bob’s FREE Tip of the Week visit