The Decline of Initiative

I was asked in a meeting yesterday how someone gets ahead at my company (and with me personally) – and the answer was pretty easy really – initiative. Those people who show initiative – who go the extra mile, who refine their craft, make changes, seek constant improvement, implement ideas and make an impact. These are the people who do well with me – and I suspect do well anywhere really.

But then I started to think that this is not everyone and began to wonder if initiative is actually in decline today; and is this potential decline being shaped by companies or by society.

The Now Economy

We live in a time where more and more is done for us – instantly. Movies on demand at the touch of a button. News when and where we want it. Access to anyone and everyone all the time. The “reality tv” celebrity that is created but not earned. And there have been many studies demonstrating that our attention spans are shrinking.

It seems to me like a natural progression that effort (and the initiative required to trigger effort) would diminish under these conditions.

Beware of Trolls

The internet has reduced our attention span, but it has also seen the “rise of the troll”. Creating / sticking your neck out is difficult.. whereas criticising is oh so easy.

More and more people are seeking applause (instant approval) and are affected deeply if they don’t get it. I know people who delete a Facebook post after an hour or so if no one (or not enough people) has liked or commented. Its time to to be true to yourself and realise that perfection is not as important as effort.

We have become consumers.. spectators.. and not active participants in this world. We need to encourage people to make.. to create.. and for them to not worry about the consequences.

When I am advising someone about writing, about blogging – I suggest to start by keeping a journal. Get into the habit of creating.. but keep it private and not worry about it being public. But then I advise that they write a blog.. and turn comments off. Just write and get into a habit of creating something… if not writing, then art.. if not art, then photography. and if not anything, then create collections.

Create an action habit. This is perhaps the most important step towards showing more “initiative” is to be someone who starts things.. not someone who has lots of ideas but never starts, but start something.. even the wrong thing.. even if it isn’t finished. Every successful person that you know or have read about is successful because he or she took those first steps.

At my company, we realised that when you ask a group of analytically minded people for an opinion you will get one – and usually all the reasons why an idea (any idea) won’t work. And so we decided to encourage “experimentation” and provide the opportunity for people to say “well, I think it will work and I will prove it”. They can set up and run a timed experiment to prove or disprove their idea.. we could certainly do more, but I think it provides a safer way for people to innovate without the “risk” of criticism; but even these experiments take some initiative and so we see the same people running experiments and the same people with their head down safely ensconced in their comfort zone.

Often, people don’t show initiative (they don’t stick their neck out) because of the risk.. because of the shame.. the embarrassment of failure. For me, this is once again an issue with trolls.. failure is the only way to learn and we need to find away to get past the criticism. We can’t change society at large, but we can make sure that our businesses don’t punish or shame for mistakes. They are a natural part of learning and more importantly of improving. If we don’t provide a safe haven for employees to make mistakes, we won’t innovate or we won’t grow.. and we will kill initiative.

Nature or Nurture

I think that there is a decreasing level of initiative around today and I believe that society is causing this for the most part – the internet, the instant-access world in which we live. But I also believe that companies, employers can do more to create a safe environment for experimentation and tolerance for mistakes and by doing so they will get more innovation, growth.. and more initiative.

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