Taking Initiative Module

Step 1 – Learn

Introduction – A story of Initiative

You arrive at work at your scheduled time sharply at 7:30 am at the campus Bistro Coffee House. On Monday morning at 7:45 am, the manager had an emergency which kept her from coming in to start baking the pastries for a dean’s 8:00 am meeting. Upon arrival, you realized that the manager’s work had not started and it is too late to bake the pastries. So you walk over to the campus cafeteria and buy some bagels and donuts from your own money for the dean’s meeting. Everything goes off without a hitch. When your manager finally arrives, she is impressed and grateful for your initiative (and pays you back).

Do you take initiative like this on the job?

Initiative has become increasingly important in today’s workplace. Employers in every area of business want to hire people who look for solutions without waiting to be told. In short, it can set you up for future success in the workforce.

But what is initiative? And how can you develop it?

What is Initiative?

Taking initiative is not about merely meeting your job requirements. It is not about looking busy when work is slow. It is also not about wasting time on busywork that is not productive.

Initiative is about taking responsibility for your work and going the extra mile. You show initiative when you act without being told what to do, persist in the face of inertia and difficulty, and see your idea through to a successful conclusion. Instead of being about “What am I required to do at work?” it is an attitude that says, “How can I best help my supervisor, colleagues, and department be the best they can be?”

By nature, initiative is:

  • Self-starting and proactive: which means that you do not wait to be told what to do. You do not wait for problems to arise; you try to prevent problems from happening in the first place. If you know something needs to be done at work, do it if you are able. Be sensitive and aware when you’re on the job.

    You see a paper cup in the hallway outside the department’s entrance. It’s not your job to clean the hallway. Do you just walk past and leave it or do you pick it up?

  • Persistent: which means you do not give up when you in encounter obstacles to completing your work.
    At the front desk, students kept asking you the same questions. So you create a Frequently Asked Questions sign. But it did not stop the repeat questions. Do you try something else, or just forget about it?
  • Curious: How do your unit and the rest of the organization work? Asking questions is a great way to show that you truly want to understand your job. If you do not know something or understand how some aspect of your unit functions, ask about it.

    Just make sure you remember the answers. Have a pad of paper or file and jot down notes to yourself when you get the answers you need so you can remember them later on.

  • Imaginative: Pretend that you are the owner/manager of your work unit. What would make this operation better? How can you make it better? Is your idea a temporary fix, or will its impact be lasting? Especially if you are serving other students, always offer suggestions for improvement from your point of view.

    “I think students might like to be able to get this information on the web.”

    “I created this PDF document that answers a common question we get. Is this helpful?”

To identify where your initiative is needed, focus on what’s important:

  • How can you and your unit provide a better customer experience?

Put yourself in your customer’s shoes and think about what changes your customers would want. Who else could you be serving? In what other ways?

  • How can you support your team members and your supervisor more effectively?

Look for problems to solve in terms of workplace procedures and policies. Think about what is getting in the way of your unit’s productivity. What aspects of your work are frustrating or annoying? What small problems do you have now that could turn into bigger problems in the future? Start with small ideas that are easy to implement and your colleagues will learn to trust your judgement.

You may have witnessed this yourself when a colleague (or perhaps you) identified a flawed process and proposed an innovative solution.

Proceed with Caution

Initiative is about proposing change.  People who show initiative often encounter resistance and setbacks, so tune in to what is going on around your efforts. It is particularly helpful to know how to read other people’s emotions. You may need to slow down and give your co-workers a chance to buy into your ideas.

For instance, you might say, “ I notice that sometimes we cannot answer the phone in three rings. I made a quick call to our Cisco IP Phone system staff and they think the new call-waiting feature might help us with that. Would you like me to check it out further?

Your idea might involve you taking on someone else’s role. If your initiative will threaten someone else’s job, do not do it.

When taking initiative to solve a particular problem at work, be sure to ask yourself, “How can I help solve this problem?”  One obvious answer is that no one has come up with a solution to the problem. Another is that your colleagues are now aware of how much the problem impacts the success of your unit. Your workgroup’s resources may be needed to address other issues.

“I suggested a solution to my supervisor on how to rearrange our workspace for better flow. My supervisor commended my efforts and said, “We have other plans for that space in the future.” I got the message and never brought it up again, but I scored points for taking initiative.”

Check your ideas for viability. Brainstorm your ideas of improvements with colleagues to get their take on it. If need be, do some research to find out if others have tried your idea. Consider the costs and risks associated with the idea. If the costs and risks are small, you might want to take action on your own; however, if the costs and risks might be high, prepare a plan to present to your supervisor and get approval before proceeding. You can develop a reputation both for initiative and for good judgment – an invaluable combination!


When you face challenges in your personal life you take initiative. When you take initiative to be helpful in the workplace the rewards are great:

  1. Job satisfaction
  2. Increase in pay or responsibility
  3. Promotion/Recognition
  4. Job security

You can develop your ability to take initiative in your role as a student worker or intern. Where can you practice right now?

A recent poll of executives asked, “What do you feel is the single best way for employees to earn a promotion and/or raise?” Topping the list for 82% of the respondents was “Ask for more work and responsibility.”

NEVER play video games, visit social media apps like Snapchat, TikTok, and Instagram, or do homework in the office. ALWAYS find ways to contribute and add value to the job.

Check out more information on leadership and taking initiative in the workplace.

Taking Initiative… The Options Are Endless

Step 2 – Learning Activity – Think About It

From the top of your head, what are the most important functions/services of your organization? List three.

Of the list above, what is done best? Pick one and explain why.

Of the list above, what is the most difficult or problematic? Pick one and explain why.