/ 605-212-8462

Stop Smothering Their Initiative: 4 Workplace Stumbling Blocks

Stop Smothering Their Initiative: 4 Workplace Stumbling Blocks

I have this thing about dead eyes. It’s a look people have when they  give up thinking…and caring.

They’ve smothered their initiative.

They gave up trying to present new ideas because their ideas are not welcome. What do you see when you walk around talking to people in your organization? What is their energy like? I don’t mean people are busy…are they excited? Is there a light in their eyes? If that question is too woo-woo for you—

When is the last time you heard about someone’s new idea or suggestion?

Are people initiating new solutions?

Low Employee Engagement?

Some people might describe this situation as low employee engagement…unfortunately, employee satisfaction surveys don’t pick up the worst offenders in organizational problems.

Leaders easily overlook cultural conditions that snuff out employee initiative to use their common sense and creative solutions.

Here are 4 initiative smothering conditions to look out for:

Restrictive policies and procedures

The United Airlines overbooked passenger dragging incident is a good example of this. To tighten efficiency in the face of high demand, process became the law of the land to the detriment of customer experience. If process is so tight there isn’t room for individual initiative then customer experience isn’t taken in situational context.

Opportunity for turning this around? Train around values as well as procedures and give people on the front lines more decision making latitude. If the solution falls short ask what went right and what would they do differently next time for a better result?

Fear of looking stupid

If your senior leadership team is insecure because they feel everything must be “perfect” they will sit on bad news rather than surface it and work to involve others in creative solutions. They feel it’s more important to maintain appearance than challenge others to solve a problem that might make them look bad.

Opportunity for turning this around? Include creative solutions and new ideas as leadership performance metrics. Encourage a culture where leaders value people who demonstrate initiative.

Micro managers

Micro managers have a different motivation. Often, they are new supervisors worried about getting things right so they put too much attention on ‘how’ something gets done instead of discussing the best outcome and leaving the how to their team. They don’t understand the smothering impact they have on team thinking and learning. Unfortunately, if someone learns to be a micro manager they carry that leadership style up the ladder with them. They learn to spend more time and resources on appearance than results.

Opportunity for turning this around? Provide 6 months of certified coaching for new leaders so they develop their people skills.


Every business has its ups and downs…but if the message people get is that money is so tight it’s hopeless… they can’t get creative despite budget limitations. I faced one such desperate situation where needed equipment wasn’t working. It was sitting in the maintenance shop with people showing up to work with insufficient gear to do their job. Engineers had tried their best to piece together solutions by robbing parts from their broken equipment bone yard. Until they ran out of bones to pick.  We put pride aside and began calling sister properties in our company for their broken equipment.   Now, we had more bones to work with. There were important occasions that we rented gear and paid for it from our operating budget. Did this stretch the boundaries? Absolutely. Did it inspire people to be more resourceful? Yes.

Things were so bad we kept what we called “an episode” book. Episodes were stories about triumphs in the face of ridiculous working conditions. The stories were badges of honor that acknowledged herculean efforts to do their best In Spite of the limitations they faced.

Opportunity to turn this around? Get out of the way. Empower people to use their initiative to explore creative, non-traditional approaches in light of and in spite of the current conditions.

Many years later I still hear from folks I worked with there. They have fond memories of battles they waged. Several have shared that they felt more empowered and involved there than any other time in their career.

No more dead eyes!


Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *