As you have probably noticed, people vary widely when it comes to how ambitious they are and how often you see them taking initiative. In fact, if I asked you if you know someone who demonstrates little or no initiative, I bet you would think of several people! Perhaps it would be a co-worker or someone you supervise at work. It may be a close relative – your sibling, son, daughter or spouse.
Have you ever tried to teach or coach someone to become more ambitious and be more of a “self-starter?” If so, how successful would you say you were in those efforts? Did the person change dramatically when it came to taking initiative? If not, you may have wondered if the person was born that way!
Is taking initiative a trait that a person inherits, like eye-color or hair color? As it turns out, heredity does play a big role. So, if taking initiative is partly determined by your genes, why is it that two siblings can be the exact opposite when it comes to demonstrating ambition or initiative? It is apparently for the same reason that one of my sisters has red hair, but I don’t!
The Importance of Taking Initiative at Work
Organizational leaders are often interested in how frequently employees take initiative. Selection or performance appraisal criteria usually include categories related to self-generated actions. These can be stated in a variety of ways. Here are a few examples:
- Action Orientation: Shows a sense of urgency, making timely decisions.
- Requires Little Supervision: Does not need others to provide structure or direction. Finds things to do without waiting to be told.
- Self-Starter: Likes to stay busy. Can plan and execute own work.
Some of my corporate coaching clients have been people who take little initiative. Managers or peers described them in 360 Feedback assessments like this:
- “He needs to show more initiative when working on team assignments.”
- “She won’t make a simple decision without checking with someone else.”
- “He only does what someone tells him to do.’
The Challenge of Coaching About Initiative
When I first started coaching, I believed that almost any trait or behavior could be improved upon. The person just needed to become aware that others perceived it as an area needing improvement. My strategy was to make the person aware of the issue and then come up with a plan for improvement! For example, while it might have taken a few weeks, or even months, coaching usually helped someone become a better listener. Yet, I noticed that coaching someone to take initiative had much lower success rates.
While I was being certified to interpret the WorkPlace Big Five personality assessment, I began to understand the potential limitations of training or coaching. The WorkPlace Big Five and SchoolPlace Big Five instruments assess 23 personality traits that fall under one of five “SuperTrait” categories. These personality traits come from a combination of heredity (our genes) and what we have learned from others.
“On average, at least 60% of each trait is determined by inherited genes. Another 20% comes from the environments in which someone was raised (through age 18 or so). Only 20% comes from behaviors we learn after we reach adulthood.”
The Effect of Heredity on Taking Initiative
The WorkPlace Big Five trait that is most closely related to taking initiative is called “drive.” All other things being equal, the higher your score on drive, the more likely you are to take initiative at work or elsewhere.
In The Owner’s Manual for Personality at Work, the authors of the WorkPlace Big Five explain that a very specific gene on chromosome 11 makes BDNF (brain-derived neurotropic factor). Scientists have clear evidence that BDNF levels can directly impact a person’s basic level of “ambition and the will to achieve.” These BDNF levels can raise or lower ambition and initiative.
A person’s “inherited propensity” to initiate action in order to achieve results can vary along a scale from low to high. So, the actual level of drive (ambition and initiative) can be low, high or somewhere in the middle.
I coached a college student whose score on the drive trait was extremely low. He reported that it was “a big struggle to get motivated” to do homework assignments. We tried many ways to help him get motivated, yet made very little progress. Things that worked to increase motivation for those with a moderate level of drive were ineffective with this student. I have also coached individuals who had so much drive that they had to scale back the number of activities they initiated!
Considerations for Helping People Take Initiative
- The lower the “drive” score on the WorkPlace Big Five, the more difficult it can be for a coach, parent, or manager to help the person take more initiative.
- Parents, coaches and managers need to adapt their strategies in helping people with low drive, as compared to those with a high drive.
- Aerobic exercise raises BDNF levels. Exercise may be a better solution than coaching for improving initiative.
- Heavy use of marijuana (cannabis) can sharply reduce ambition and drive, especially in young adults who have used cannabis since their early teens.
- Stimulants and other medications often help people with ADHD to take more initiative.
- More structure and more external rewards and consequences can also help people take more initiative.
At the very least, we recommend the exercise strategy. As you might have guessed, those with low drive often need to exercise with an exercise partner or group!
For more about the multiple benefits of aerobic exercise, see SPARK: The Revolutionary Science of Exercise and the Brain by John J. Ratey, MD.
Holding People Accountable for Taking Initiative
You may supervise someone at work who has low initiative or have a family member who has low initiative. Keep in mind that it can be as much about brain chemistry as it is about laziness, “permissive parenting,” or ineffective supervision! Yet, you do need to hold the employee or family member accountable for getting things done.
If your employee is not getting the job done, consider reassigning him or her to another position or letting the person go. If your 30-year-old son is sitting around your house playing video games, you do have to set boundaries! Having low levels of BDNF does not qualify anyone for a disability or special accommodations!
Learning About Drive and Other Personality Traits
Are you struggling with low initiative? Or are you at a loss for how to help a family member or employee who does not take initiative? If so, please contact us to arrange for a complimentary consultation. We help people understand their drive and other personality traits through the WorkPlace Big Five or the SchoolPlace Big Five. We also help people make the changes they want to make through personal and workplace coaching services.