Stepping Up To Leadership


14 Jul, 2014

Employees Failing to Take Initiative

When I talk with many business owners I hear the same thing. “People just don’t step up – they sit and wait to be told what to do. They don’t show initiative”. What can I do?

This problem is common no matter if you are in a government department of a few thousand staff or a small business with just one employee. People are struggling with the whole issue of responsibility – and their part in the puzzle.

If there are that many people struggling with the issue is it a society or cultural problem where we have bred a few generations of no-hopers, or is it a skill problem?

Is it really an employee problem?

What I am going to suggest may seem radical, but in my personal experience, the problem is not necessarily with the lack of skills of the employees. The problem could be with the lack of skills of the manager/leader.

You see when people step into a management role, generally, they are not presented with a manual on how to be a great manager or leader. They bring with them the leadership/management skills they have developed throughout life coupled with a whole kit-bag of beliefs about what a manager actually does.

If you ask a manager to define what they do, they generally say something along the lines of, “we plan, allocate and control resources to get work done“.

That is true … as far as it goes. But that belief is that in itself causes the problem.

A brilliant book called The Responsibility Virus by Roger Martin puts it this way.

When you say “I’m in charge” it almost always carries with it the unspoken “…and you’re not“. Sending that signal prompts the other person to say “Fine, you’re in charge and I’m not” and triggers off a whole series of interesting and less than helpful reactions.

Many managers come in with good intentions and start by taking responsibility for critical choices facing their organisation. When faced with problems they go it alone, work harder and do more and don’t collaborate or share the leadership burden.

What happens is they create well-intentioned subordinates, who believe when the chips are down, managers should be given the latitude to jump into the fray and take control, whether their leadership capabilities are up to the task or not.

At the first flinch of passivity or hesitation from their subordinates, managers step in and try to fill what he/she sees as a void. This causes the passive party to see himself/herself as marginalised which prompts a further retreat by them until they have abdicated all responsibility to the manager. At the end of the cycle, the passive party is distant, cynical and lethargic.

The manager tends to become contemptuous of the employee and angry at having to bear the full weight alone. What the manager then tends to do is flip into an under-responsible stance to insulate them from pain and say things like “I was set up”, “Nobody else played their part“.

Passive employees then feel the pain of failure and often flip to over-responsibility, making sure they are never again put in the position of being dependant on a leader that lets them down, creating an endless loop.

Managers create the seeds of their own problems by their approach. The difficulty comes in that just telling managers to stop being a leader and telling employees to step up and take initiative just doesn’t work.

Leaders vs Managers

What is needed is a radical shift in skills and thinking on the part of the manager to step into leadership. The issue is that in most organisations, the company is over managed and under lead. Companies need more leaders and fewer managers.

Leaders use their skills to influence others to take action that benefits both them and the organisation. Yes, they own and can use the traditional management skills … but they have more. They have the ability to work with and influence people in a positive way to get the work done. They have the awareness of their own personal style and the capacity to modify it to help people understand and get behind the idea they want to promote.

So, if you are faced with a loop of under-responsible employees, ask yourself “What part have I played with creating this situation?” and then take the step into leadership to ask yourself, “What skills do I need to learn to become a better leader and not just a better manager”.

Stepping up to leadership is one of the hardest roads you can take. It is a lifelong journey with lots of wrong turns and cul-de-sacs along the way. But it also the best thing you can do for both you and your business.

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HR Author and Lecturer with over 25 years' experience in human resources and workplace relations in Australia. Lead Author of Instant HR Policies & Procedures, NDIS Direct Employment HR Manual, and Employee Performance Reviews: Tips, Templates and Tactics.

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