The Hidden Hazards of “Taking Initiative”: Part 1

Part 1: How to Recognize when you are hurting, not helping, at work

‘Take Initiative’ is often the slogan for the young, hungry 20-something, hustling to advance and impress the boss. Let me be clear: especially in the early stages of a career, taking initiative is one of the most important skills you can demonstrate. By asking for more work and trying to find solutions to problems you gain your team’s trust and get a chance to strengthen skills. As you start a new job, your dedication and work ethic sets the tone for how your colleagues will see you. Showing initiative by working hard, asking to help others, and always looking for solutions to office problems is one of the best ways to build new skill sets and ultimately grow your career.

However, there is a wrong way to go about showing initiative at work. Are you impressing the boss or actually causing headaches for your colleagues? Some of us work long hours just to pay the rent and our student loans. For others with the luxury of having some control over work schedules, we are still making constant trade-offs between meeting the demands of our office and balancing our other responsibilities. The drive to show initiative can be a continual pressure, and unfortunately it can sometimes lead us down unprofitable paths and actually hurt us at work.

Here are three pitfalls to look out for as you hustle at the office. Depending on your personality type, you may fall into one, two, or all three of these traps.

Pitfall #1: Upsetting the Office.

The ambition trap.

Offering to pitch in wherever and whenever needed will go a long way towards making your team happy. But arriving at a new job and deciding you have the solutions to all of your office’s problems in your first week will probably come across as conceit, not helpfulness. When you go about demonstrating that you’re a hard worker and team player, remember that giving you projects to work on takes time and energy from your boss. Your co-workers and supervisors have to take time out their days to bring you up to speed before you are ready to meaningfully contribute to a given project. Instead of asking your boss every 30 minutes if there’s more work to do, first look around the office to make sure there are no tasks you already know how to do that need to be done. Don’t forget the unglamorous jobs like refilling the printer. Then let him or her know you are available to help.

Depending on the office, your coworkers also might be annoyed if you ask them too frequently if you can help on their projects. Internal competition can create conditions perfect for misunderstandings. In these types of office environments, ask yourself how much extra work you are causing for the other person to avoid badgering colleagues or encroaching on their portfolios. The ambitious type, unfortunately, can often fall into this trap.

Pitfall #2: Fruitless work.

The procrastination trap.

Working long hours in the office will hopefully win you brownie points with your team and possibly help you with that next promotion. But are you always working 80 hours per week while your coworkers work 60? Always re-revising projects? Working full-time when you are only paid part-time hours? Is all this “initiative” moving you closer to your goals? You may be falling into the trap of the thinking that working more is working better. While bosses and teams definitely appreciate putting in hard work and long hours, how you work may matter more than the total number of hours you work. Like the networker who goes to a networking event convinced he has to get business cards from every person there, only to find at the end of the night that quantity doesn’t equal quality, the person who proudly stays until midnight every night may not be helping the team, getting closer to a promotion, or impressing the boss.

Do you take pride at working overtime every night of the week and on weekends too? Is it possible you are procrastinating before deadlines? Not being efficient with your time? Checking and rechecking each task needlessly before the deadline, when the company could be better served with you tackling another task? Procrastinators are most likely to fall into this trap.

Pitfall #3: Burn Out.

The helper trap.

Do you say yes to everything? Always volunteer to take notes at the staff meeting? Go to every office flag-football game? Does your cubicle-mate ask you to review all of his work for grammar mistakes in addition to your own? You bring so much to the team. But always saying yes will overwhelm even the most competent person. If you are exhausted, frustrated, and feel taken advantage of, you may be reaching a burn out breaking point. Sadly, the best-meaning do-gooding helpers are the ones most likely to fall into this trap.

Do you have stories of times when taking initiative backfired at work? Let me know in the comments! And look for Part 2 next week for tips on overcoming these potential hazards of “showing initiative.”

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