How to Encourage People Take Initiative at Work

make employees take initiative at the workplace

One of the thousands of timeless Indian mythological stories goes like this:

One day, Narada muni visited Lord Vishnu’s abode at Vaikuntha. “Why is Garuda’s (Vishnu’s eagle) statue outside your temple?,” he asked. “Am I not your biggest devotee?”

Before Vishnu could respond, they heard a loud crash outside. Vishnu said to Narada, “I’ve sent Garuda on an errand. Can you check what happened?”

Eager to prove himself, Narada rushed out. He returned and said, “A milkmaid slipped and broke her pots.”

“What was her name?” Vishnu asked.

Narada went out, returned, and said, “Sharada.”

“What caused her to fall?” Vishnu asked.

Narada felt irritated. But he went out, returned, and said, “A snake crossed her path.”

“Did she break all her pots?”

“Go find out yourself!” Narada snapped. “Find out, Narada,” Vishnu insisted. “Why?” Narada asked. “I might want to buy some milk,” Vishnu said.

Narada stepped out reluctantly. On returning, he looked pleased with himself. “She broke one pot, but the other is intact,” he said. “She’s willing to sell you the milk but at double the price.”

“And the price of the milk?”

“Oh, I forgot to ask,” Narada said and began rushing out.

Right then, Garuda flew in, oblivious to what happened.

Vishnu stopped Narada and said to Garuda, “There was a crashing noise outside. Could you go and check what happened?” Then He whispered to Narada, “Let’s see how he fares.”

A few minutes later, Garuda returned. “A milkmaid named Sharada got startled by a snake and fell down,” he said. “She broke a pot of milk and is wondering how she’ll make a sale at the market. I suggested she sell some milk to you. You are the husband of the Goddess of Wealth, after all.”

“And the price of the milk?”

“Four copper coins,” Garuda responded immediately. “One actually, but I think she hopes to make a handsome profit while dealing with God.”

Vishnu laughed and his eyes met Narada’s, who realized why Garuda’s statue always stands outside a Vishnu temple.

Garudas at the Workplace

Garudas are assets for any leader. They anticipate situations and make the right calls without waiting for permission.

They provide bosses with relevant information before important meetings. They execute tasks assigned to them superbly and within deadlines. They embody the founder’s mindset by taking initiative without being obligated to do so.

Every leader wants a Garuda—a trusted lieutenant. Yet, they lament that they have a better chance of walking on water than finding one.

But the thing about Garudas is that you don’t chance upon them.

Vishnu didn’t stumble upon an intelligent and resourceful eagle. Rather, He rescued Garuda from the wretched slavery of the Nagas and groomed him to turn into an independent entity.

While you don’t need to rescue potential Garudas from toxic circumstances, an integral part of your leadership involves grooming them to turn into intelligent, committed, and aligned lieutenants.

“The role of a leader is to enable people to excel, help them discover their own wisdom, engage themselves entirely in their work, and accept responsibility for making change.”

Vineet Nayar

Here are four ways for you to turn your people into valuable assets at the workplace.

1. Ask simple yet useful questions.

The most common scenario where leaders hope people will take initiative is in daily problem-solving. Leaders long for a time when they can focus on larger things instead of solving the same problems over and over again.

But here’s why this remains an elusive dream.

Most leaders resort to extreme steps when people approach them with a problem. They either hand them the answers or bellow, “Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions.”

The first action makes people fall into the lazy habit of getting answers on a platter. The second makes avoid approaching the leader for fear of admonishment or highlight problems when it’s too late. (On a side note, if they knew the solution, why would they approach a leader in the first place?)

To help people get their mental gears working, ask them questions they can answer without feeling overwhelmed.

In How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, Dale Carnegie presents a useful template:

  1. What is the problem?
  2. What caused the problem?
  3. What are the possible solutions?
  4. Which solution do you suggest?

You can pose these non-threatening questions to people who approach you with a problem. To answer them alone, people will collect facts and think the problem through. And the solution will pop out like bread from a toaster.

Even if they approach you, the discussions will take less than a third of the time.

Ask useful questions. You won’t just make people better at taking initiative; you’ll also get surprisingly creative insights from them.

2. Treat mistakes as stepping stones to learning.

Mistakes are inevitable when people try something new. They also occur when people try doing the same thing in a different manner. What matters is how leaders look at mistakes.

They can either take the reins back and create constraining systems and processes to ensure that mistakes don’t occur. Or they can use mistakes to help people (and themselves) learn and grow.

When the mistakes people make get held against them, they avoid taking initiative and instead, stick to the bare minimum. (Nobody likes walking on eggshells.)

Such a “business as usual” strategy saves costs immediately but proves terribly costly down the line. Good people leave while mediocre ones remain. Complacency and stagnation become part of the culture. And the company becomes dinner for the competition.

how to use mistakes to learn at the workplace

Good leaders see mistakes differently. They visualize them as a process of exploration and learning. They create a culture of psychological safety where people feel safe to admit their mistakes. The more people admit them, the more they learn. And companies that nurture their people’s desire to learn are thirty percent more likely to turn into market leaders in the long term.

In a paper published in 1999, Amy Edmondson defined psychological safety as”

“… [A] shared belief held by members of a team that a group is a safe place for taking risks. It’s a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up.”

An internal study by Google on traits that separate outperforming teams from the rest, highlighted similar norms: allowing others to fail without repercussions, respecting divergent opinions, feeling free to questions others’ choices while also trusting that people won’t undermine you.

A culture of interpersonal trust and mutual respect makes people comfortable being themselves. Safety nets make them feel secure if they fail.

You can try new things while reducing risk. Most mistakes are not fatal. But the unparalleled learnings from them are more than worth the tiny price.

3. Build a “human” workplace.

In the middle of the Mahabharata war, Krishna, who was Arjun’s charioteer, told Arjun they to stop because the horses were tired and needed refreshment.

He instructed Arjun to shoot arrows into the ground to bring out water so He could bathe and refresh the horses. He also asked Arjun to keep the army at bay with a volley of arrows while He did so.

Arjuna followed His instructions. Refreshed, the horses pulled the chariot with renewed vigor.

The horses didn’t ask for refreshments. But Krishna sensed their exhaustion and made resources available for their comfort. His actions proved that giving before getting is not a modern-day trait of authentic leadership. It has existed since ancient times.

In an era when people are increasingly bringing work home, they’re also feeling the need to bring more of themselves to the office. They don’t just want to feel safe. They also want to feel cared for.

People crave to be treated like human beings rather than mere cogs in a machine. They want leaders to address their latent emotional needs rather than “bribing” them with beer pong, free lunches, and foosball tables.

As a leader, your role involves:

  1. Absorbing the shocks that your bosses and the market send out rather than passing them down the line.
  2. Reassuring your people through word and deed that you’ll take care of them in good times and bad.
  3. Helping your people navigate through their concerns, doubts, and fears, rather than dismissing them.

Treat your people as human beings. They’ll respond with loyalty and gallop towards goals with renewed vigor.

4. Align with customers.

There are two ways in which a company sees customers. One is as dollar signs and nothing else. The other is as entities whose lives they aim to improve.

Companies that do the former never admit their shallow mindset. But it shows in their actions. Their mediocre “me-too” products remain at the center of everything. Deep down, they see customers as unpredictable, shortsighted, and finicky people who are just numbers for the balance sheet.

Such companies promote thick silos, poor communication, and rampant office politics. Sycophancy gets rewarded, fire-fighting becomes the norm, and the toxic culture infects the company so deeply that its demise becomes inevitable.

Companies that strive to improve customers’ lives do the opposite. They keep their customer at the center. They identify what success means to the customer and build products to help them achieve it.

In such companies, silos often blur (to the extent that everyone knows everyone by face and first name). Autonomy exists upstream and downstream, decisions get taken quickly, and merit gets rewarded.

Bad businesses shove their products down unsuspecting customers’ throats. Good businesses create customers. Great businesses create repeat customers.

If you build a culture that puts your customers at the center, people will transcend petty battles and cooperate to achieve larger objectives. Everyone will align in the right direction. And you’ll build an army of upstreamists — people who don’t just solve problems but also prevent them from occurring.

Summing Up

To grow as a leader, you need someone to take your place. Such a person needs your help to become a dependable Garuda.

Value people by their ability to take decisions proactively and responsibly, not outcomes or goals you set for them. Nurture them to discover their own wisdom, engage themselves in their work, and accept responsibility to drive change.

With such people by your side, the workplace morphs from a battleground into a playground. Everyone learns, has fun, and achieves remarkable things.

Is that good for business or what!

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