How Does Initiative Impact Employee Advancement?

Even employees who are incredibly average can become stars and advance at work.

By David Cox, SPHR, SHRM-SCP | September 26, 2017

At this moment, there are employees across the U.S. who feel they’re ready for a promotion to the next level at work with a corresponding raise in salary. Unfortunately, this feeling may not be shared by their employers. As time passes without advancement, combined with a lack of communication, employees become discouraged and their productivity inevitably declines.

Robert E. Kelley, Ph.D is the President of Consultants to Executives and Organizations. He is also a Distinguished Service Professor at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business. He spent 10 years with Bell Labs where he pioneered research into the development of “star performers” at work. During this period, he discovered that employers are less likely to advance employees based on tenure and far more likely to advance those whom they consider to be among their very best.

Specifically, Dr. Kelley wanted to know what made these “star performers” more productive and subsequently more valuable. His initial surveys revealed many assumed factors that were of no surprise to anyone, which included the following:

  • Higher IQs
  • Better problem-solving and more creativity
  • More drive and ambition
  • More outgoing; they get along well with people
  • Identified as risk-takers and mavericks

Altogether, this survey revealed 45 factors that managers and those considered among the best of employees believed led to “star performance,” which Dr. Kelly’s team divided into three categories:

  1. Cognitive factors: Higher IQ, logic, reasoning, and creativity
  2. Personality factors: Self-confidence, ambition, risk-taking, and self-determination
  3. Social factors: Interpersonal skills and leadership

Dr. Kelley and his team were astounded by their findings. Their research revealed conclusively that none of the above factors proved consistent in identifying a company’s top performers. In further discussion of this finding, they began to consider a threshold question: If these fundamental factors are not the real drivers of outstanding performance, would it be possible for average-performing employees to be turned into stars?

Sure enough, they discovered that the key to productivity was not found in test scores concerning the factors they had identified earlier, but in patterns of behavior on the job. “It wasn’t what these stars had in their heads that made them standouts from the pack, it was how they used what they had.” By exercising initiative, employees can leverage their talents and skills for greater productivity at work.

The positive impact of initiative on advancement is undeniable. Whether it’s coming up with ideas to help increase the effectiveness and efficiency of a work unit, or going the extra mile to help accomplish essential tasks or achieve desired results, initiative is the driver that can help average employees have an opportunity to be numbered among a company’s best employees. In doing so, they can increase their competitive advantage for further advancement at work.

David Cox


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