How to counter a lack of initiative with proneness for it

How come my employees don’t show more initiative?” The answer is in the tape color you use most often. For real. Here’s why.

Many entrepreneurs and managers say they want employees to show initiative in their work. Yet, when you watch how these leaders act with their team, compliance is what most really seek.

The nuances between the two can be boiled down to two colors.

Initiative is someone’s decision to act upon a situation or information s/he has became aware of. Put in a business context, this is what often makes the difference between making the best of and missing out an opportunity passing by. Let it be to improve how a particular task is usually completed. Like handing out hot cups of coffee.

But things need to be done (kept) in a certain way. They can’t be done differently.” So statements like “You can’t do this”, “You have to do that this way” put everyone in line. Right between the “red tapes”.

Imagine if it had stayed in a certain way with coffee serving. As a customer, it wouldn’t have been possible to have your favorite brew on the go. Something Lawrence Luellen made possible starting in 1907, with the disposable coffee cup. [1]. You’d have to always keep an eye on your cup’s top, to avoid any coffee spills. Something for which William and Kenneth Dart gave you piece of mind in 1981, with the coffee (cup) lid. [2] Your fingers would have their fair but painful share of coffee burns, because of a paper cup being too hot to handle. Something Jay Sorensen helped prevent with the coffee (cup) sleeve in 1991. [3] Improvements that if “things needed to be done (kept) in a certain way” would probably have never happened. Your mornings might not be the same neither.

Red tapes tend to condition people behaviors. The more limitations (red tapes) you put up then, the less your employees will act spontaneously. Even more when encountering something new, like an opportunity passing by. Making it a problem for them to show any initiative. Because of the fear of reprisals or negative consequences, for doing something the dire-opportunity requires but might have not yet been categorized as “acceptable” in the employees’ (formal or informal) handbook.

This brings us back to the two colors mention, earlier.

Used in a quality control context, statements like “You can’t do this” can be useful. At least, if what has been done (or is to be made) somehow jeopardizes an expected outcome. Like adding sour cream to a coffee cup instead of regular cream, for sweetening. When not used for quality control, though, red tapes close possibilities. Whereas statements like “Here is what’s possible instead” or “What about this other option?” don’t create the same type of reactions. They open up possibilities. They act like “green tapes”, if you prefer.

This makes all the difference. Not only in building one’s confidence (instead of fear) but proneness for initiative (instead of passiveness) as well.

Because in the end, the challenge in growing a company isn’t in showing its people what they can’t do, by putting red tapes everywhere. It’s in using green tapes. So your team can see where and how playing an active role in the dire-growth is possible. Better to feel safe knowing where are your “clear for flight zones”, than in danger because you’re always only told about the “no flight” ones, don’t you think?

When you look at your own team, where in their work do you feel “putting green tape here” would be very useful these days?