According to Michael Frese from the University of Amsterdam, and Wolfgang Kring, Andrea Soose, and Jeannette Zempel, University of Giessen, initiative is defined as "taking an active and self-starting approach to work, and going beyond what is formally required in a given job." This seems relatively straightforward under relatively predictable business conditions, but in uncertain times, taking initiative can be challenging.
Why? First, it's hard to "take an active approach to work" when you don't know what your work is supposed to be right now. Second, what may have been formally required of you a month or two ago may no longer be relevant. Third, during these difficult times, it can be hard to find the motivation to set and achieve goals, especially when the future feels uncertain.
While you may be waiting to give clear direction, it's still possible, productive, and even profitable to show initiative. Here are three ways to do it:
1. Bring a noticeable "can-do" approach to your work.
When you are asked to take on a task that feels outside of your responsibilites, say "I'd like to...and I have some questions." Get clarity on the specifics of what you're being asked to do, how you'll approach it, what resources are available to you, what the timeline is, and what success looks like. And then, assuming you can do it, do it. It doesn't have to be your job forever. But saying yes now, while your team is under stress, can pay off in the future.
Keep in mind that having a can-do attitude "doesn't mean you have to say yes to everything that's asked of you," writes work psychologist Nikki Fields. "[It's] more that you are open to things and positive. If you can't do something, suggest someone who may be able to."
It also is important to remember that if you want to bring a can-do attitude to work, you have to find ways to recharge and renew your energy during the day. If you don't get exercise, fresh air, sleep, downtime, healthy food, etc. your can-do will quickly become a can't-do.
2. Bring your full attention to team meetings.
Your daily meetings may consist of one Zoom call after another. You can show initiative by coming fully prepared for these meetings. This includes knowing ahead of time what you're expected to contribute to the conversation, and what you're planning to get out of the conversation. It also means that you've read any materials ahead of time, and if you need something (handouts, paper and pen, good lighting, water), you have it before the meeting starts.
Bringing your full attention to team meetings also means that you're focused on the meeting, and not using the time to answer emails, catch up on the news, or anything else that isn't the meeting itself. You can also demonstrate initiative by speaking up in discussions instead of sitting passively on the sidelines. Don't wait until after the meeting to voice your true opinions and perspectives.
Finally, before, during, and after meetings, ask yourself, "What contribution can I personally make to help the team achieve success?" and then share your ideas with your colleagues. And, after getting some helpful feedback about what might make a positive, productive impact, go do it.
3. Push boundaries without plowing them down.
Business leader Max DePree wrote, "We cannot become what we want to be by remaining what we are." Living and working in uncertain times gives us the opportunity to make important and helpful adjustments in our mindsets, beliefs, habits, behaviors, relationships, roles, responsibilities, and much more.
To leverage the benefits that come from making changes, you'll likely have to push some boundaries. This may include making time-sensitive recommendations where you go outside the traditional hierarchy, or (finally) naming the elephant in the room that needs addressing in order for your team to move forward. And, if you get feedback that you have overstepped by taking initiative, share your intention, process the feedback, and adjust accordingly.