Are You Proactive Enough at Work? 5 Ways to Take More Initiative

This article originally appeared on Microlearning, our bite-sized online solution for leaders and individual contributors.

Do you want to be the person who waits for things to happen to them or the person who makes things happen? We all have the power to choose.

Here are a few ways to shift out of reactive mode and start taking more initiative.

1. Seek clarification before jumping to conclusions.

You hear that your boss is canceling your project in favor of a new initiative or that your company is acquiring a competitor. Your first thought might be, That’s a dumb decision! or That will never work!

It’s natural to have an emotional response, but first reactions are rarely based on complete information — and they’re unproductive if you let them harden into judgment without further analyzing the situation. More context helps you understand more fully and chart a way forward.

To get it, shift into curiosity mode and ask your manager or other decision-makers questions like:

  • “Could you share more about the thinking behind this decision? I realize I don’t fully understand it, and knowing more could help me process the new direction and apply what I learn to my future work.”
  • “This is some big news, and I want to be sure I understand success criteria going forward. Could you share more about what our ideal outcome looks like?”

Then, write down what you can and cannot control about the situation to help you determine what to let go or accept (e.g., that an acquisition is happening) and what to act on (e.g., building a relationship with a key person from the acquired company and how to contribute to the first integration projects).

2. Build an important relationship now — before you need something.

No matter your role, at some point, you’ll depend on a colleague — to answer a question, help you finish an important project, or solve a thorny problem. Plus, teammates and peers on other teams can be excellent sources of information to broaden your perspective of how your work fits into the big picture. Take time now to build strong relationships, and you’ll elevate your thinking and have an easier time getting help when you need it.

Rather than trying to build lots of relationships, focus on one important one: Who has expertise that could be helpful to you now or in the future? Who makes decisions that impact your work? Whom do you typically need help from or anticipate needing help from in the future?

Choose a person and determine how you want to reach out. For example, you could:

  • Offer a way to help with their current project: “I’ve heard a bit about what you’re working on. If data analytics support would help you, let me know — I’d be happy to run a report for you.”
  • Invite the person to coffee or lunch to learn more about their goals: “It sounds like there’s some overlap in what we are working on. I’d love to hear more about your goals and trade ideas. Do you have time Friday to connect over coffee or lunch?”
  • Ask a colleague to make an introduction: “I know you have a great working relationship with Amarachi. I’m interested in getting to know her better because I see a lot of overlap with what we do. Would you be willing to introduce us?”

3. Seek feedback.

Are you being as effective as you think? You can answer that question now — by asking others. It’s common to resist seeking feedback to avoid discovering that you’re not viewed as favorably as you imagined. But you’re using that feedback to help you move forward toward an outcome you want. That’s a good thing, right?

Besides, waiting for feedback to come to you is risky. People don’t always give it freely. You could spend months annoying your manager with long-winded updates they don’t read or frustrating a peer so much by not responding until the last minute that they stop asking you to work on their high-profile project.

To seek feedback effectively:

  • Be specific about the exact feedback you want. If you ask broadly, “How am I doing?” you’re likely to get a reflexive “Fine.” Instead, make it easier for the person to give you useful feedback by framing your ask, “I want to be sure that my updates are giving you what you need. Would you be willing to share what’s working for you and what could be better?”
  • Give the person time to think. It’s hard to give meaningful feedback on the spot. If possible, ask ahead so the person has time to think through what they’d like to share. “After the event happens, it would be really helpful to hear your thoughts on how I’ve planned all the details. Could I schedule 20 minutes with you next Wednesday to talk about it?”
  • Thank the person for the feedback, even if it hurts or you disagree. Regardless of how you feel about what they say, the person has tried to help you improve by giving you feedback. If you don’t show your appreciation, they likely won’t try to help you in the future.
  • Pay attention to less obvious forms of feedback, such as body language. Feedback is all around you, all the time. Your manager shrugs and avoids eye contact — maybe you should ask a follow-up question to learn more about what’s not being said. People often check their phones when you’re speaking during meetings — maybe you’re taking too long to make your point. A peer reaches out to you for advice — maybe you’re more respected and appreciated than you realize.

4. Whenever possible, bring ideas for solutions when you raise issues or challenges.

When you just point out problems or what’s wrong with ideas, you could easily get labeled “negative” or “complainer.” But when you raise problems and offer potential solutions, you send the message that you want to help and act. And in the process, you can show your creativity and critical thinking skills — traits important for anyone who wants to have an impact and move up in their organization.

So when you encounter a problem, think through three potential solutions. Try to develop a range of options — from quick fixes to longer-term solutions — and a good rationale for why you think each might work. Even if you don’t share all three when you raise the issue, pushing yourself to come up with options increases your chances of coming up with a decent idea.

Note: You won’t always come up with a solution, but that shouldn’t stop you from raising important issues. In those cases, try leading with the fact that you don’t have the answer to show that you’re not just complaining (e.g., “I don’t have a solution, but thought this issue was important for you to know. Could we work on possible solutions together?”).

And to be next-level proactive, consider your boss’s biggest challenges and how you can help, whether it’s offering ideas or volunteering to take on tasks you know matter to them. After all, part of your job is to help your boss strategize and troubleshoot.

5. Ask to take more ownership of some aspect of your work.

Everyone wins when you build autonomy: Your manager gets to take a step back as you step forward to boost your skills and performance — and even spot a better way to do the work. Pick a task that you feel ready to do with less guidance or a skill to develop in order to advance in your career.

Depending on the task and your relationship with your manager, in your next 1-on-1, you could ask for more ownership directly (e.g., “I’m pretty comfortable with this project now. Could we switch our weekly project check-in to monthly — and I’ll let you know if I need your input in the meantime?”). Or, ask to work together to map out growth stages for the task.

For example, if you want to become the go-to person to present to clients about your group’s work, your growth stages might look like this:

  1. Create a client presentation in close collaboration with my manager or a peer.
  2. Create a presentation on my own, and request feedback from my manager before delivering it to a client.
  3. Create and deliver a presentation to a client independently, and solicit my manager’s feedback afterward.

Work with your manager to map actions you can take to progress from one growth stage to the next, like giving practice presentations or seeking tips from presentation experts in your department. As you take those actions, check in with your manager to gauge your progress and adjust the plan as needed.