How to Take Initiative at Work

Six steps to help you effectively take initiative in the workplace

By David Cox, SPHR, SHRM-SCP | August 24, 2017

Knowing when and how to take initiative is valued by employers as signs of professional growth and leadership potential.  The good news is that initiative is a skill that you can develop.  Here are a few steps that have proven helpful along the way:

Develop your career plan

Research has shown that employees who have a long-term career plan are more likely to take initiative.  This is especially true when the actions or decisions initiated will help them further their career goals.

Build your self-confidence

It can take courage and a strong sense of self to show initiative, especially if you fear that people may disagree with your actions or suggestions.  Start taking initiative with smaller decisions and actions.  This will build your confidence as you develop a successful record of initiative throughout your career

Watch for opportunities and recommend improvements

Employees who show initiative often do so by acting on opportunities others have failed to notice.   Such employees are interested in their organization and how it works, and they keep an open mind to new ideas and possibilities.

You should always take note of areas for possible improvement in your organization.  As you notice opportunities and potential improvements, consider the following:

  • What would our customers (internal and external) want us to improve? What could we do that would be more helpful to them?  How can we improve quality?
  • What small problems do we have that could grow into bigger ones?
  • What slows our work or makes it more difficult? What do we often fail to achieve?  Where do we have “bottlenecks?”  What seems to frustrate and irritate the people on our team?

Get into the habit of looking for these things, and when things go wrong, think about how you can fix them.

Challenge your own ideas

Imagine you’ve come up with a creative way of breaking through a “bottleneck” in your customer service process.  It may seem like a great idea, but before you head straight to your boss with your idea, stop and do some homework. Think about the costs and risks associated with the idea.

Where risks or costs are more significant, take initiative and prepare a formal proposal, asking for authorization before you go ahead.

Develop “Rational Persistence”

I once heard the term persistence defined as, “the art of moving forward even when you encounter setbacks or difficulty.”  Employees who demonstrate initiative often encounter difficulties and setbacks along the way.   One of my graduate instructors encouraged “rational persistence,” meaning to listen, consider, and appropriately change direction depending on results and the input of others.

Persisting with an idea, is much easier if you learn how to manage change effectively.  This can often make the difference between the success and failure of an initiative.

Find balance

While it’s important to take initiative, it’s just as important to be wise in doing so. Taking initiative without fully considering the idea you want to implement can result in unintended consequences.  For example, if an initiative generates too much extra work for others, a well-intended idea could result in conflict.

Successful initiative requires good decision-making skills. The more you develop these skills, the more objective you’ll be at judging when an idea is good, and when it isn’t.  This way, you can develop a reputation both for initiative and good judgment – an invaluable combination at work.

David Cox


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