by Meridith Levinson

Want Your Employees To Do More? Give Them Less

Feb 08, 20123 mins
IT JobsIT Leadership

Corporate leaders say they want employees who take on extra initiative for improving the company, but they do little to foster a culture that empowers and rewards employees for doing so.

Recently I came across a survey that tries to explain why employees don’t demonstrate more initiative at work. The survey of 675 professionals in the U.S. and Canada defined initiative as taking actions that “make the company better, including bringing up new ideas, suggesting better ways of doing business, and taking high levels of effort to improve the organization’s services.”

The study, conducted by Dr. John Izzo (author of Stepping Up: How Taking Responsibility Changes Everything) and his publisher Berrett-Koehler, offered seven possible reasons why employees don’t “step up” at work and asked respondents to select the two that best described why they don’t take more initiative.

The number one reason, cited by 64 percent of survey respondents: Leaders don’t seek their input when making decisions, so employees don’t offer their ideas.

The second most popular reason, cited by nearly 40 percent of workers: Employees don’t suggest ways to improve the business because leaders dismiss their ideas.

One in four respondents (26 percent) noted that they don’t take more initiative because they don’t get rewarded or recognized for doing so.

I have a couple of theories as to why employees don’t take more initiative at work: When they do, their bosses take all the credit.  More importantly, they simply don’t have time. They’re too busy doing their job, plus the job of one or two colleagues who were laid off during the recession and never replaced, to tell their boss, “I’ve got an idea that will make our workflow more efficient and make everyone’s work days easier and more productive.”

Overworked employees pose significant problems to businesses, and not having enough time to generate and share their bold ideas for stiff-arming the competition is just one of them. When workloads get too ambitious, employees make mistakes. Quality and service suffer, and the law of diminishing returns catches up to corporate greed. The many employers that have decided, in the interest of reducing costs to prop up corporate profits, not to hire more workers because existing employees are so productive will soon understand what I’m talking about.

Overworked employees also suffer from low morale. When employees race through their workdays juggling an inordinate (and increasing) number of responsibilities because their employer won’t hire someone to take on the extra work, their resentment grows while their investment in their company’s success sinks.

Thus, the lessons for leaders who want to get more out of their employees are clear:

  1. Ask employees for feedback when making decisions.
  2. Don’t dismiss their ideas.
  3. Reward them for sharing game-changing ideas and for taking on more work.

Most importantly, leaders can get their workers to do more (and more of the important stuff) by giving them less to do. Hire people, whether contractors or full-time staff, to relieve your most valuable employees of some of the extra work they took on during the recession. Give them time to generate, share and implement their new ideas.