Showing initiative at work is way overrated

Career Pundits crack me up sometimes. Advocating that “showing initiative at work” is a sure-fire way to get ahead in your career is one of them. Listening to these pundits, you’d think the only way to get a promotion or that new job is to volunteer for “tough” projects, go out of your way to help others and constantly speak your mind at meetings.

Let me suggest that doing those things will actually prevent you from moving ahead. Seriously.

Volunteering for tough projects is a mistake

The most important criteria for your success is this one: a person who consistently produces great results for the company.

Taking on tough projects is no fun. They carry high risk with very little reward. For example, I was assigned (I didn’t volunteer…) for a division-wide project. Long hours. Weekends. Big risks. Huge accomplishment with the completion of the project. Reward? Told that since I was coming off the project, I needed to find a job in the company or I risked getting laid off.

Thanks for that one.

And let’s just say you do really well at that high risk project. Great. Now you will consistently get assigned those high risk projects by your manager. What is the probability of consistently producing great results when all you work on is the highest risk projects in the department? At some point, the tough project won’t be about using your strengths, it will be about having to use the job skills you are weakest doing. Failure will often follow.

Helping others doesn’t necessarily help you

I’m a big advocate for helping other people, especially those in your business network. I’m not a big fan of helping your coworkers just because pundits tell you to.

Here’s the deal: the biggest component of being a team player in the workplace is actually delivering your work tasks to the team. They can rely on you; they don’t need to hold you up for the team to succeed.

Yet, too often, we try and prop up our teammates and coworkers. It makes sense, of course. But helping others to get the team up to average when your effort to help is way beyond expectations simply means your work is average. Seriously, sometimes it is just necessary to let people fail, allow management to see where the problem is and let management deal with the issue.

Otherwise, you just continue to prop up poor performers through your extraordinary performance. A wasted effort.

Speaking up at meetings doesn’t mean you are adding value

People should advance their thinking and opinion at meetings. But there is a fine line between adding value to the discussion to simply speaking up at meetings and making nonsense. Or tagging on a “me too” statement to someone else’s contribution for the sake of speaking up.

All this is pretty easy to see by both your manager and your coworkers. Then you get labeled as “managing up” and the office politics take over and you get shut out from the real decision making process in the group.

Speaking up in meetings doesn’t get you ahead. Contributing valuable ideas and constructing good plans during the meeting is what helps get you ahead.

Where you need initiative

Where your initiative counts is tackling your work, completing it on time and with great quality. Initiative counts when looking at your own work processes and suggesting improvements. In other words, the best way to get ahead is to be a star performer in the job you do.

And, really, how much time gets taken away from your work to volunteer for tough projects, help your coworkers and spending time in meetings? All that time that could have been used to really nail the work in front of you.

This isn’t to suggest to isolate yourself from your team. It is to suggest that you focus your time on doing the right stuff for your career.

3 Responses to Showing initiative at work is way overrated

  1. Nancy McCarthy says:

    THANK YOU!!! Finally some common sense about “volunteering” at work. I've been the volunteer, I've worked with the volunteer, and I've had to fire the volunteer. “Thankless” does not even begin to cover the role of volunteer. I hope your comments put the pundits advice into perspective.

  2. Tai Goodwin says:

    I agreed with most of the points you make here…once I read the details of each situation. Especially about the importance of having something meaningful to say and not just speaking up for the sake of chiming in. Not so sure about the reward of successfully handling a big risk project always being another big risk project. There should be room to negotiate or select roles on projects that will put you in line with your career goals. A good/wise manager will help position you for wins without pushing you to the breaking point.

  3. [...] Question: Is showing initiative at work a bad idea? Common advice is often to show initiative. But Scot Herrick of “Cube Rules: Career Management for Cubicle Warriors” says that showing initiative is not good for your career. To learn more, read his post “Showing initiative at work is way overrated.” [...]

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