The Hidden Downside to “Taking Initiative”: Part 2

Part 2: How to Avoid the Hidden Pitfalls of “Taking Initiative”

As I mentioned in Part 1, while showing initiative is crucial at work, it is actually possible to show initiative in the wrong way. Whether your ambition, procrastination, or urge to help is leading you astray, here are some tips for how to avoid those pitfalls be more effective at showing initiative around the office.

1. Instead of taking initiative to impress the boss or learn new skills, put the team first.

Putting in extra work will be appreciated as long as it’s for the benefit of the team. If you are constantly asking for new tasks to improve your own prospects for a promotion or to get ahead for yourself, you are much more likely to accidentally become a nuisance to coworkers. Remember, training new talent creates work. Some people are happy to teach you how to help them. Some people are not. Look for the “teachers” in your office and always ask yourself if asking for extra work will actually benefit the person you are asking.

If you are part of an office where colleagues are fiercely territorial of their projects, remember that they may not appreciate you asking for one of their “fun” projects instead of helping with grunt work. It’s great to step up to work on a cool learning opportunity, but your coworker will be truly grateful if you offer to help with their less glamorous work too.

2. Staying late does not equal showing initiative: Instead, be intentional.

What is your goal? Will doing this work further that goal? Is your goal a healthy work-life balance? A promotion? Depending on your goals at different stages of your life, you should be showing different work philosophies. Are other employees leaving early not because they don’t work hard but because they have figured out a way to do tasks faster? If you can, use your colleagues to benchmark how fast and efficiently you do projects. Most people will be flattered if you take them aside and mention how you’ve noticed that they excel at x and ask them for tips.

3. More does not mean better: Know how to say no at work.

Most people aren’t in the habit of saying no at work. Many people are even afraid of saying “no”, feeling that if they say “no” they are jeopardizing their own career. It can be tricky to say no at work (sometimes it can definitely be impossible), but not saying no will inevitably leave you overwhelmed, taking away from your work priorities, your personal priorities, and your life priorities. Moreover, your boss is likely to think you lack good time management skills.

If saying no isn’t your strong suit, have a response ready. If you need to, practice saying no gracefully or at least asking for time to think about it before saying yes. Some people hate saying no to others. Some people hate saying “no” to themselves, for fear of admitting that something might be too much. If that is you- recognize that impulse as unhelpful. Change your default answer from “Yes” to “I’d love to, but let me check my schedule and get back to you before I say yes- I need to check my schedule to make sure I can keep all of my commitments”.

As Victor Hugo said, “Initiative is doing the right thing without being told.” Ultimately, you shouldn’t be afraid to show initiative. But know how to help, know your goals, and know how to say no. Keep the team first, be intentional, and don’t burn yourself out.

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