Employee initiative or employee management?

DH had separate conversations with his brother and his cousin this break in which they both said the same thing.

Whenever each asked his boss how he was doing, the boss said, you’re doing fine.  When asked to elaborate, the boss would say, you do what we ask you to do.

However, at end of the year evaluation, each was told that just doing what was asked isn’t enough to excel.  It’s enough to do ok.  But to excel each needs to show initiative and to figure out what to do before being asked to do it.

DH’s brother maintains that that’s just not his way, and if his manager were a good manager he’d manage DH’s brother so that DH’s brother would excel without having to show initiative (though he didn’t use the words “initiative”– that’s me not knowing how else to describe it) — he’d be told what to do and he’d do it and he would excel.

DH’s cousin’s situation is a bit more dysfunctional in that he actually gets in trouble for showing initiative and is thus getting severely mixed signals.  DH’s cousin’s boss sounds a lot worse than DH’s brother’s boss.

This made me think about education levels and management and what makes a good employee.

DH and I kind of agree with the brother’s boss.  We have PhDs.  We’re trained to have initiative.  We couldn’t do our work without a lot of self-direction.  We both supervise people without PhDs for whom we do the vast majority of the direction.  And it’s great when we get an employee who shows some initiative because they’re closer to the work and often see things that we don’t and it decreases our mental load (though it’s good when they ask before going off on a wild goose chase).  The PhD, in essence, is valuable in the work world because we don’t think there’s anything wrong with being asked to do self-direction and we expect to do it and we know how to do it.  Hopefully that translates over for humanities PhDs and other areas where supply outstrips academic demand.  That ability to work independently is worth money to industry and government.

DH’s brother has an MS (masters of science).  DH’s cousin has an AS (that’s the practical version of a 2 year community college degree– associates of science).  DH’s brother’s boss is fine.  DH’s cousin’s boss is pretty bad.  Why should you get education?  To make it easier to avoid terrible bosses.  And maybe each extra degree really does make you more productive– there’s a lot to be said for independent thinking and independent work skills.  Sure, there’s something to be said for being able to be a cog, but right now there’s a lot of people able to be cogs and not as many able to direct the gears on their own.  So gear direction is worth something.

So what do you think– should employees show more initiative even if they don’t want to or should good bosses be better micromanagers?  (That’s a loaded framing– perhaps you have a way to load it the other direction?)  Is higher education worth something?  Does it really teach thinking and self-direction?

40 Responses to “Employee initiative or employee management?”

  1. ralucacoldea Says:

    Let’s frame it the other way: would you rather want a boss that clearly states what he’s going to grade your performance on or would you rather have zero ideas on what are you going to be appraised on at the end of the year? Especially if your salary depends on it?

    Same for teachers: would you rather your teacher tells you what is needed of you to get an A-grade, or a teacher that says “surprise me”.

    I think most people would like the first option better. I also think that the second version “might” create better results for a limited amount of people (the rebels, the ones that have fire in their bellies for the subject of their work), but will leave a lot of people behind.
    In the end, is good to have the options to choose the company for which you work, either cog in the machine or superstar at a start-up are good options for the right person.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      The first option is a better teacher. However, most of my students have thought they should get an A just for showing up and completing everything. No, dear, that’s a C.

      • ralucacoldea Says:

        You can be as tough as you want as long as you are up front about it. Just say to your students/employees/husband(:P) : this is what’s poor performance/adequate performance/outstanding performance. Then you don’t have a problem as a boss, you did your duty.
        You can formulate it in several ways: “in our company, an extraordinary employee looks around an helps his colleagues with their tasks”. “in our company we are proactive about reporting bugs even if they are found in our own code”. “we reward people who look reach this amount of sales every month” and so on, but it’s really important that you are 1. upfront about it, 2. really clear in what an employee needs to do to get there.
        Saying “we expect you to be more proactive” after a year of “you’re doing a good job” does not seem like good performance management in my opinion. It’s not even adequate.

  2. ralucacoldea Says:

    “In the end, is good to have the options to choose the company for which you work, either cog in the machine or superstar at a start-up are good options for the right person.”
    In the end, good to read your comments at least twice so you don’t look like an ignorant twat.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      But you can see why the superstar might have a higher marginal productivity (and thus earn a higher salary…)

      • ralucacoldea Says:

        I agree, the superstar should get a bigger salary. The Pareto principle in action.
        However, since most employees are not part of the 20%, a good manager will do their best to extract the most he can from the rest of the 80%. And when I mean the most he can, I’m not saying it in an “exploit the masses” kind of way but rather develop and empower your employees to become better at their job ideal.

    • The Frugal Ecologist Says:

      I totally agree with Ralucacoldea – my husband is seeing some not so great mgmt in his job now (first one outside academia). Without the boss being clear about what expectations are and what being proactive/excelling/taking initiatve is (& how it will be rewarded) you may end up taking on extra work (what Holly talks about below) but not being recognized or compensated for it.

      I think there are 2 issues here – being able to self direct and avoid terrible bosses by getting more education and a separate issue of how to be a good manager and help your employees excel.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Definitely two issues, though the original article framed them as 1. initiative vs. micromanagement and 2. education coming with different expectations/abilities on the job and more flexibility to avoid bad workplaces.

        Perhaps there are really 4 issues? (what makes an excellent employee, effect of education on self-direction, avoid terrible bosses with education, what makes for good management)

  3. First Gen American Says:

    It could bea as simple as just asking for a little more work of you have the capacity to take it on. This doesn’t always work though because when I was a coop, finding projects for me took work on the managers part and asking for work was a nuisance to the assignment leader.

    It wasn’t until I blatently wasn’t doing work (writing out Christmas cards) in a very obvious way that I was given something to do. My manager was like…what are you doing, and I repsomded, “waiting the companiy’s time because I have nothing to work on.” Apparently it was okay to be underutilized as long as it was not obvious. I was 19 though so I could be a little brash about it and still get good marks for “initiative” in the end.

    I strongly believe constructive feedback should happen throughout the year and not just during review time. That way, there are no surprises and the review can be constructive.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I think not just asking for more work, but suggesting what that more work could be. It’s a lot easier when you’re in the trenches to see what needs to be done next. My best undergraduate RAs do that (and find and point out mistakes!)

  4. sciliz Says:

    Higher ed could simply be selecting for people who can be idle without being destructive. Not that DH’s cousin is destructive, just that his “terrible” boss is more likely to be spending time managing people who need guidance *or else there are issues*.
    Alternatively, in line with the Dean Dad post you linked a while back, academia could be providing the room of one’s own. To be honest, in an environment where most people are given more guidance than they need, most people with PhDs will not be creative self starters…environments can zap creativity.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Sure, though my DH no longer works in academia.

      (Also, while it is true that many of the cousin’s coworkers are terrible, his boss has other horror stories attached to him. There are definitely issues. Makes for entertaining stories, but also a desire to never spend time in or on anything made by a construction company.)

      • becca Says:

        Yes, there are certainly jobs outside academia that could “provide a room of one’s own”… or indeed provide not only the time/space/cultural encouragement to work creatively, but actually supply the actively stimulating intellectual cohort.
        And I have an ex who tried to go through the training to become a carpenter… there were some serious issues there. But there are horrible bosses who are horrible people, and horrible bosses working in horrible environments.

  5. Holly@ClubThrifty Says:

    “Why should you get education? To make it easier to avoid terrible bosses. ”
    I agree 100%.

    On the other hand, sometimes showing initiative just brings more responsibility than you really want. I had all the initiative in the world at my old job and the only thing it got me was a ton more work that no one else wanted to do. Looking back, I wish I would have just done the minimum and enjoyed my work more. In some jobs, initiative may be necessary. In others, it just makes things harder.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      It sounds like you didn’t really want to be an excellent employee, just a good one! (So the opposite problem…)

      • sophylou Says:

        Actually, I don’t think that necessarily follows, though — if you’re someone with a lot of initiative and you’re working with a lot of people who don’t have that, you can end up with people deciding that you’re going to do their work for them (have had this happen with both colleagues and patrons). It’s a frustrating position to be in if you do want to be an excellent employee and are inclined towards initiative — “excellent” shouldn’t mean “doing everyone else’s work,” so you have to figure out how/where to set limits… which can be difficult if expectations aren’t clear (or, as is the case where I work, change constantly without much warning).

      • Debbie M Says:

        At one job it really got my goat that they would pull everyone on my team out of my team except me so that I had way too much work to do, then add more work (by re-writing the software I worked on and getting me to help with the design and then the retraining) and then ask me to take additional initiative. My initiative, besides figuring out how to maximize my efficiency, was figuring out which things could slide for a while and which couldn’t. I was not going to additionally learn other people’s job duties to help them out. Even though I like learning new things and love helping other people out.

        And when you’re too good at your job, it lets other people slack more. By the end of my typist job, I could barely even understand what some of the faculty were trying to say because they had learned they could get very lazy in their writing with me.

        Typically I was rewarded for doing extra work by getting the satisfaction of being replaced by 1.5 to 2 people with the same or higher job titles after I moved on. This was particularly galling after being told that it was impossible to hire an assistant for me with a low-paying title even if I went half-time to free up some money.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        The problem is that people who are that good should be paid more. They should be benefiting from being more productive, not just the company. So it’s ok if other people are able to slack so long as you’re paid for their slacking!

    • Revanche Says:

      This was one of the top lessons I learned in my management classes: do NOT punish for performance.
      A manager’s natural inclination is to give the most efficient or high performer more work but doing so blindly or in an effort to extract the most (mundane) work out of an individual and that’s poor mgmt that breeds resentment. Rightly so, IMO.
      The star might want more work as a result of performing but it’s much more likely that the star will want more of this interesting work or more of that awesome project or the freedom to experiment. The reward’s not less work, it’s the right / privilege of having more autonomy as a result of demonstrating excellence and ability.
      Most often, or more frequently, though, I think we see punishing the high performer.

  6. Linda Says:

    I feel like this is a loaded conversation already. Yeah, the higher your education level the more likely it is that you’ll be in positions where you’re encouraged and rewarded to be more self-directed. One way to “show initiative” in situations like this is to ask for access to more information that will help one better understand organizational goals and challenges so one can be doing/proposing stuff above and beyond expectations. In large organizations it’s not always crystal clear what would be helpful to do and what would be creating more problems. Having access to more information (by being invited to meetings/conference calls where you’re learning more about a situation, or by gaining access to reports or analyses) is usually necessary to craft an effective proposal or plan. Simply going to one’s boss and saying something like “I heard that there was something going on around X. I have some ideas that may add some value, but would like to get more info first. Can you help me with that?” can be a sign of initiative and a good first step. But company culture could also not be very encouraging of this behavior, too. Some places just want cogs.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I think the cousin’s workplace really does want cogs, but I’m guessing the brother’s doesn’t. The brother has a pretty highly technical design job (it does require a masters degree) so I imagine the boss is not expected to have 100% of that expertise.

      I wonder his boss would have said if he’d asked for examples of initiative.

  7. SP Says:

    I agree, most jobs that require a college degree (at any level) would be happier with a self-directed employee.

    Initiative doesn’t mean no direction at all from the boss. It can be very broad: “you are responsible for all things relating to X. Some things this includes is this and that, and you might need to think about Y and Z” (assuming boss is more knowledgable in the role I’m to undertake). Roles evolve over time, but it helps to have an understanding of a starting point. Ideally it wouldn’t be so broad, but in reality, roles aren’t always well defined.

    Here are my ideas for BIL/cousin. Bring your boss solutions instead of problems. “This is the problem, this is what I’m planning to do about it, here are the other options considered.” Or maybe “I had some time today and figured out a quicker way to do X and wanted to share it with the team.” . Come up with things you think would be helpful. Seek out information. Google how to be a great employees, and you’ll probably find better tips than I can spout. Also, Ask A Manager is a good read.

    The education link is not something I’ve noticed. However, I’ve mostly worked in environments where people have BS/MS. There are some with initiative, some without, and I assumed it was mostly personality based. I’ve definitely worked with PhDs of both types as well, but I think the most successful PhDs wouldn’t be in jobs that would overlap with mine.

  8. chacha1 Says:

    Higher education definitely IS worth something IF the student approaches it with a lifetime, career-building perspective. If the student approaches it as “this is just what I do so I can get a decent job,” that student is likely to spend 10-15 years doing marginal work in marginal jobs before finally figuring out (if he/she ever does) that more is needed.

    Initiative is absolutely essential in every job. I’ve been in the workplace now for 35 years. I have worked in fast food, in retail, in offices, and in the academic environment. In none of these situations was I adequately managed. In every one, I had to figure out what was needed, and I usually had to figure out how to do it. In only one of these situations was I *actively rewarded* for using initiative. (I’m talking substantial raises and promotions here. A pat on the head (figuratively), a “good job,” and a COL raise don’t, in my opinion, constitute active rewards.)

    Initiative has to be seen as its own reward. The truth is, maybe one out of a hundred “managers” has any idea how to manage anything. The people working for the other 99 need to understand, early on, that in order to do their jobs well and learn new skills – so that they can have a career and not just a job – they have to manage themselves.

  9. oilandgarlic Says:

    I have mixed feelings for this. Like chacha1, I have actively taken initiative but have only been rewarded a few times in terms of a substantial raise and minor promotions. I usually get many “pats on the head.” In most cases,taking the initiative just keeps me from getting bored, ensures I get excellent reviews and more job security (even if there isn’t really true job security these days), creates a good work reputation, and helps improve my resume for the next job. Unfortunately for many of us caught in the middle, good workers but not management, it seems that going the extra mile is required nowadays just to keep a job!

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I wonder if there’s gender differences or occupation differences in terms of rewards for quality of work. I know that our department secretary is incredibly underpaid for the quality of work that she does, but she’d probably have to get a different job in order to get a raise. Come to think of it, all of the really good initiative showing administrative support staff we’ve had below the level of department secretary have all left for jobs that paid more (and they’ve been replaced with multiple people!). It’s a shame when you need ambition in order for good work to be worth something.

      • oilandgarlic Says:

        I wouldn’t be surprised if that was true. The only person in our department to get a promotion to management was a white male. There are at least 2 women who take initiative and lead projects without receiving promotions.

      • chacha1 Says:

        My experience and observation after 25 years in legal support is that in order to get a substantial raise or promotion, you have to change jobs. Male or female, this seems to be true. Men in support positions actually face a slight negative bias because the higher-ups tend to think (thanks to Patriarchy), e.g., “why are you just a secretary”. They EXPECT that in women. Le sigh.

  10. Tragic Sandwich Says:

    I have an M.A. I’ve had great bosses and terrible bosses in equal measure. This is not a question of employee education level, but of management ability, which is not the same as being good in the trenches, although that’s generally why someone gets promoted.

    The brother’s boss sounds adequate. When told, “You’re doing fine, you’re doing what we ask you to,” the brother should be asking the follow-up question of “What can I do to excel?” But at the same time, the onus is also on the boss to say, “You’re doing fine, and here’s how you can make yourself even more valuable.” That is, if the boss wants to be more than adequate. Which ze should, since ze is (implicitly) asking more than adequacy of hir subordinates.

    Employees should show initiative, and bosses shouldn’t expect mind-reading.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I think the difference is that when you have an MA (and valuable skills) and you have a terrible boss, you can switch jobs to get a different boss. That’s not so easy when you have only an associate’s degree. (Because there are more people with a 2 years associates degree than with a masters degree and it’s easier for the market to meet increases in labor market demand for a degree that takes 2 years than for a degree that requires college + 2 years.)

    • Revanche Says:

      Employees should show initiative, and bosses shouldn’t expect mind-reading.

      Yes, exactly. This is actually what I explicitly told my staff. I share what baseline performance looks like and outline what excellence might look like. Beyond that, if you want something, you have to tell me. I do not read minds as a service to anyone. If you want to do more, better, or just want change, and you don’t know how or cannot achieve it on your own, sit down and talk to me. I will do my part if you do yours.

  11. Debbie M Says:

    “[S]hould employees show more initiative even if they don’t want to or should good bosses be better micromanagers?” Both. Bosses should try to learn what their underlings should be doing and how to do it so they can help them do it. Employees should keep bosses updated on what is needed and how things are working. We need all the brains we can get for most jobs.

    “Is higher education worth something? Does it really teach thinking and self-direction?” This is a tougher question. Higher education was worth a lot to me because I learned so many cool things and met other smart people, some of whom are still my friends today. (And then I learned how to pay off debt!)

    I’m not going to say it taught me thinking, but I did get some good thinking skills by studying social science. I am better at being properly rational now.

    I started off as a person who did not take much initiative. Or any. What taught me to do so was later being in situations where I knew more than the other people trying to do something. That pretty much never happened in my classes.

  12. Mrs PoP Says:

    I think the clarity of expectations is one of the parts of Mr PoP’s job in commission sales that I have always envied. At the beginning of every year you are given 3 target sales numbers for the year. One is a “meets expectations” number. The next is “outperforms expectations”, and the third is “you’re a f*cking superstar”. But they have different names for the numbers. =)
    Each target has a different income level associated with it (depending on the products sold to get to that number…), and your progress is tracked publicly and reported quarterly to all your peers. It’s pretty freaking tough to not know if you’re hitting the marks that your managers and VPs want you to hit.

  13. Revanche Says:

    I’ve had more terrible bosses than good, and I’ve got a BA. I worked my way up to certain levels to get away from bad bosses, crappy family unfriendly companies, shift work, etc. Higher education got me in the door but being a strong performer (yes, with initiative), an advocate for my career, and having a half decent idea of what angle, if not exact role, I wanted to progress at played a much bigger role in my escape trajectory.

    I’ll note that while I had taken initiative most of the way through my career, I came up with goals where none of my managers did (good or bad), then checked with the managers to confirm that my direction and intended strategies were in line with their priorities and thinking. THEN I would execute. This was vital where some managers were bloody awful at expecting you to read their minds and know when they wanted work done and how and how fast. (Then they’d change their minds but that was a battle for a different day.)

    • chacha1 Says:

      I’ve had the boss who would give explicit instructions, which I then followed, only to be told “that’s not what I wanted.” It’s demoralizing and makes a person think they suck at their job. But that beyotch also got her fiancé to give away his two cats that he’d had for 10+ years. So I know it was her, not me.

  14. omdg Says:

    In my field, really good employee = mind reader. It’s amazing how good you get at it after a while, and also how annoying it is to work above someone who barely even tries.

  15. MutantSupermodel Says:

    I’m going to agree with the gentlemen that the management in question is doing a poor job and is probably using the very lazy and dated explanation of excelling as a way to avoid giving higher pay increases. I think there are lots of ways someone can excel at something that have nothing to do with anticipating your boss’ needs/wants. Asking your employees to anticipate your needs/wants is also kind of silly when a lot of times you might not even exactly know what could be possible. My guess would be that the goals they were given were simply not SMART goals and when you lack a SMART goal, it makes it hard to concretely “excel” regardless of the employee’s personality type. So my suggestion would be to put pressure on the bosses to come up with SMART goals and then work on beating them in some way versus meeting them.

    As far as education and the quality of bosses, I will tell you that one of the best bosses I ever had was at my very first job while I was still in high school and she didn’t have a college degree. I have never really had absolutely HORRIBLE bosses but I have had bosses who were poor managers– the two I just left behind being a good example and they were medical doctors at the top of their fields and I got that job with a bachelor’s degree. So I’m going to go ahead and disagree with the notion that getting higher education gets you away from bad bosses. I am actually leaning toward the concept that management is more of a social skill than anything else and even though anyone can learn good management skills, I believe it comes easier to some people than others. As a matter of fact, I actually just had a conversation with a friend where we wondered if it’s a generational thing. Most of the bosses I had that weren’t great were Baby Boomers while the best bosses I had who were really good at identifying and enforcing employee strengths have been Gen X. I am one of those strange creatures that is on the cusp of Gen X and Millenial for reference.


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