Can’t you just show some initiative?

Dealing with a lack of initiative can be hugely frustrating for leaders.

Whether our direct reports are…

Coming to us with problems without offering solutions.

Not communicating, then becoming frustrated when we ask questions.

Failing to find their own ways to resolve issues.

The fact is, when people don’t show their initiative, it can feel as if we are leading without influence. Going around in circles. Not producing the results we should be. And failing to help others achieve their full potential.

But the good news is, we are able to control how much initiative our direct reports exhibit, simply by giving them the gift of freedom.

The question is, how much freedom should we give? And, how should this be managed?

The Freedom Scale is a highly effective leadership tool developed by Fastworks which I have used within my coaching practice with great success.

Fastworks documented the practices of the most successful teams in the Silicon Valley in launching new products. They found the most effective groups used this model and were typically working at levels 1 and 2 of The Freedom Scale.

Here’s how it works.

Essentially, there are five freedom levels, which are outlined as such:

Freedom Level One Act on your own initiative Advise routinely After the fact control
Freedom Level Two Act on your own initiative Advise immediately During the fact control
Freedom Level Three Make a recommendation and act on the outcome of the discussion Act on the outcome of the discussion Before the act control
Freedom Level Four Ask what to do Act once advised Trainee only
Freedom Level Five Wait until told Act once advised Trainee only

As leaders, our priority is to move our staff up the scale to level 1 and 2 (with the occasional 3), on as many aspects of their work practices or tasks as possible.

For example, someone may be at level 5 or 4 on their first day or two on the job, or when commencing a new project / task. But as they become more informed, hone their skills, and grow in confidence, we can begin to facilitate their movement up the scale.

How do we encourage people to go up the scale?

Use phrases such as…

“What do you recommend…”
“What are your ideas…”
“How do you suggest we tackle this…”
“I would love to hear your thoughts on…”
“What can I do to help you move forward on…”

How much freedom we give depends on our own anxiety levels, so be aware that…

Ÿ Anxiety is fear of the unknown.

Ÿ Trust is partly a function of knowledge.

Ÿ As information increases, anxiety decreases.

Ÿ As anxiety decreases, autonomy increases.

Encourage your direct reports to communicate more information upwards in order to lessen your anxiety and strengthen their autonomy.

The objective is to get our team to the point where they use their initiative whilst keeping us informed.

ŸYou have the power to remove freedom levels 4 and 5 from their usage, and instead empower them with the ability to use their initiative, working within levels 1 and 2 on specific tasks.

If you are not confident in the decision-making quality, or the outcomes of your direct report, this could an opportunity for exploration and coaching.

ŸIt was Banksy who once said – “A lot of people never use their initiative because no-one told them to.” 

You have the ability to unleash potential in those you lead.

Have you tried The Freedom Scale? What tools do you use to empower initiative in your teams? 


  1. ENNA A. BACHELOR on December 10, 2013 at 8:10 pm
  2. ENNA A. BACHELOR on December 10, 2013 at 8:09 pm

    Amen. Most are condition to find fault rather than seek solution. I challenge myself and others to correctly identify the challenge and the the opportunity it presents. Finding out how we meet the challenge is whats important. People are not drones…they need to be inspired/motivated/reminded to share there solutions not just identify problems. Leaders should allow for latitude in offering up suggestions. Quite often people will stop giving feedback because they are ignored, shot down, or made to feel as if their feedback is no appreciated/valuable. I like to think of my team as the “eyes in the back of head” seeing what I can’t from a vantage point I can’t get to. I might be the final decision maker but input from all eyes helps.

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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