From suffering the despair of powerlessness to finding fulfillment or how to fuel, direct and inspire employees’ initiative into a long-term, sustainable engagement.
By Martina Matusova, Psychologist and Coach
Do you find yourself struggling to engage your employees? Or maybe you find them to be deflated, without any inspiration and drive to create? Why is it that people nowadays feel so powerless and jaded? Is it a symptom of the post-covid era? In this environment, how can we address the desire for personal fulfillment and help employees find initiative from within?
There is no doubt that taking initiative has now become a central idea of today’s managerial language, and more broadly, of modern organizations.
In some organizations, taking initiative has turned into an obligation or a duty (counted in annual individual assessments and progress reviews), regardless of what this might engender at the individual level. In other words, it is automatically assumed that taking initiative is easy for everyone, it can happen anytime, and that everyone might (and should) want to do so. However, practice in the workplace shows this not to be the case.
In theory, taking initiative should be easy! Think about it: not a day goes by where we don’t spend taking some sort of initiative in our private lives. Whatever tiny initiative that may be, such as taking a new way to get to work, or calling a friend out of the blue…
So why does it seem like some employees struggle with the drive to take initiative as soon as they enter the office? Understanding and getting deep into the minds of employees is a challenge, but asking them directly is one sure way to at least start getting to the bottom of it. This is why we partnered with GroupSolver and reached out to folks in a short study to get some answers.
What does ‘initiative’ mean in the workplace?
According to the philosopher Hannah Arendt, every human being has “a power to act”, to feel responsible through their body and thought, which they accomplish precisely by taking initiatives. She also said that “Men, as long as they can act, are able to do and are constantly doing whether they know it or not, the improbable and the unpredictable”.
This power to act was also confirmed by our study we led with GroupSolver. When asked directly what initiative means to a group of employees, it was described mostly with “creativity” (37% support strength) and being “responsible” (37% support strength). These answers confirm two major concerns of humanity: first, to leave the trace behind us, that is to say, to create and not to be forgotten. The second is “to answer for oneself”, that is to say, to be recognized for who I am (read, being recognized with my own identity);
Question: What word would you spontaneously associate with “initiative”?
Initiative, the action also known as the ability to seize supportive opportunities, reflects the opportune moments that Aristotle called kaeros. To seize kaeros, one needs to be available to this constantly changing, shifting reality, and to be attentive beyond their own concerns. The best way to miss such a kaeros-opportune moment is to be too focused on the objective, on the plan, on the idea, on all prescriptions. In this case, the employee is only “doing the job”, answering to the order.
Two main reasons our respondents mentioned why they do not take initiative were: 1) the utmost focus on the work itself, and 2) the fear.
Initiative is a promise we make silently to ourselves and tacitly to those around us. In return, there’s double stress here: on one hand, we want to keep our engagement to the other, on the other we do not want to be deceived by ourselves (i.e., self-deception).
At last, initiative is also the decision we take without knowing the outcome and this uncertainty is anxiety-producing. All our lives we have been educated with the belief that by working hard and by applying our intelligence, we can reduce the future uncertainty to a minimum. By taking an initiative, we are acting directly against the premise of reducing our anxiety.
A logical question a manager should ask at this point is how we resolve the conflict between doing the job (desire for reducing anxiety) and our innate desire to create (anxiety increasing) without sacrificing the mental health of our employees.
Work initiative and its impact on mental health
Psychodynamics defines work as “the activity deployed by men and women to cope with what is NOT already given by the prescribed organization of work”. So technically everything your employees are doing by themselves is “an initiative”, it means the way there are doing it, how they answer the phone, how they write an email, and every time they bring something new, something unique to them is an initiative. Now, this is probably not enough for most managers. In business, we want more. The common belief is that initiative means something innovative, voluntary, dynamic, unexpected, and creative. This bar for what “real initiative” can be met only when employees do the “real work” rather than successfully answering their phones.
This ultimately requires us to think a bit deeper about what we consider “work” in the workplace. In the work environment, we can distinguish two types of work: prescribed and real. Prescribed or planned organization of work is all you put in the job description, all routines, instructions, and all you demand to be done exactly as asked (e.g., procedures and scripts employees in a call center need to follow while speaking with customers). And then, there is the “real work”, let’s say the challenge the employee needs to face due to the uncertain outcomes from the objective world around them, all the resistances, suffering, fatigue, occurrence of unexpected events (e.g., Internet going off, copy machine breaking down, …) all that interrupts the direct application of rules and guidelines. The biggest question of mental health at work is about the way to go from the prescribed to the real, which is constantly (re)invented by employees at work. In this sense, the “real work” is an expression of our subjectivity and through that we build our identity. This identity we build at the workplace forms the basis of our mental health.
Before we connect the concept of taking initiative with its impact on mental health, we need to explore yet another question: Where do I want my employees to show initiative? In prescribed or the real work?
What stops employees from being more driven?
Almost 25% of employees we interviewed answered that their current position did not leave them free to come up with new ideas/initiatives. We can assume that some employees just do not feel the need to go beyond the prescription. Is it a question of their comfort zone? Or laziness? Or lack of self-control? One or the other, they are both phenomena that we call “resistance to the real work”. This resistance is a sort of defense mechanism which paradoxically produces a denial of perception, which causes suffering. Employees remain in this resistance, even if in the end they are suffering. In order to conquer this resistance to the real work, the employee needs to apply effort and be active.
The success of the action has a lot to do with the art of reacting during acting. It is to know how to adapt to a change by being attentive to all the signals sent by others, by everything that surrounds us, by this “real” that action allows us to meet.
But taking initiative impacts others around us too, so there’s no wonder there is some concern about what that might look like. In other words, it turns out that our initiative is only possible in relation to another initiative. At the same time, our initiative is part of a chain of other people’s initiatives. In other words: I care how my deed is extended because it is already a prolongation of what was undertaken before me.
Question: What are the conditions that must be met to foster a culture of showing initiative?
As seen above in the visual (which represents responses provided to us directly by the employees), there is the fear of judgment, as in how we are seen in the eyes of others. Essentially THE concern of each and everyone around us, is to be recognized and “loved”.
While taking an initiative, this fear is taken more as a worry of doing poorly, but also as a worry of willingness to do good/the best I can. Paradoxically, in taking initiative, we need to get rid of this obsession with perfection—or being perceived in that way. We simply need to act, to actually use our drive and do what we set ourselves out for. We cannot be doing and observing (read as qualifying/evaluating) ourselves simultaneously.
Prioritizing employees’ mental health can help birth initiatives
Sigmund Freud declared that what moves us in life is desire. Desire is the accomplishment of the action in 3 senses: do the deed, take pleasure from it, and (pro)create. Translating this into any business means that we achieve things by doing, which results in making us feel happy—and ultimately giving us the impression of contribution to a larger part of the company — independently of whether our initiative outcome is taken in all or not.
Unsurprisingly, initiatives of employees go hand in hand with mental health awareness and empathy from their company. The more the company cares about the mental health and happiness of its employees, the more employees feel confident and willing to bring up their initiatives. In our study, over 70% of employees felt very happy overall and happy to work in the company. Furthermore, 50% of them had a positive experience from taking initiative on their own.
Again, identity is the core of mental health…and this applies at work just as it does in personal life. We need experiences, we need others, we need to face this reality of life (and work), we need to meet with ourselves through all we live, we enjoy, and we suffer. We cannot discover our identity only through ourselves. Our workplace is yet another place for us to discover who we are. We experience every day the real work, we meet others, we collaborate, we adapt (or not), we use our intelligence, we have opportunities to create, and thus to exist (and not be forgotten by others) and can come closer inch by inch to our SELF.
This is ultimately what mental health (at work) is: feeling accomplished (i.e., to create), adapting to the real work (i.e., going beyond prescriptions), and meeting others (i.e., being recognized). It really can be broken down that simply.
So, we leave you with one last question you can ask yourself in order to foster the drive for initiatives: “How am I going to improve my own mental health at work”? This is the most important initiative and duty we all have towards ourselves, but also to those around us. Because alone we go quickly, but together we go further.