Breaking the initiative paradox pt2

Dr. Tim Baker concludes the third article based on his new book, ‘Performance Management for Agile ​Organization’.

So how is the cycle broken?

According to David Campbell, there are four practical strategies that help to overcome the initiative paradox and open the lines of communication between employees and management. They include:

  • Goal alignment
  • Boundary refinement
  • Sharing information
  • Active accountability

Let’s look at each of these strategies briefly.

Goal alignment

Goal alignment is about aligning the perspectives of staff and management. Where there is agreement between the motives of employer and employee, it is less likely that the exercising of the judgment of employees will not conflict with their manager.

On the other hand, where there is non-alignment between both entities, employee initiative is likely to be unwelcomed by management.

The assumption reinforcing the goal alignment approach is that conflict is not the result of the enterprising qualities of employees—rather it is the result of a misalignment between the organisation and the individual. 

Communication of boundaries

Communication of boundaries is a second way of overcoming the initiative paradox. This involves the manager’s carefully communicating the kind of initiative they want and don’t want. In other words, this is about communicating the extent and limits of an individual’s authority to display workplace initiative.


Explaining when, where and how initiative is expected, spells out to employees the boundaries of using their initiative. If these boundaries are not communicated, employees will be confused and indecisive about displaying their initiative in the business.

The assumption underpinning this strategy is that in certain situations it is appropriate and expected that employees demonstrate initiative, but in other situations it is inappropriate to show initiative.

Information sharing

Information sharing between employee and employer can build trust. This approach concentrates on minimising unshared expectations by providing employees with the same information, perspective and frame of reference that the manager uses in managing their area of responsibility.

The underlying assumption of this approach is that by sharing information—and therefore trusting each other—employees and managers will have a similar perspective. This method encourages employees to channel their enterprising qualities based on an appropriate flow of information from managers.

Information sharing is a particularly useful approach in the areas of strategic planning and continuous improvement.

Dynamic accountability                                                                                                                 

Dynamic accountability involves an understanding between managers and staff that initiative and judgment can be exercised, but only at the employee’s own risk. In other words, if the result of employee initiative is unacceptable to management, it can adversely affect the initiator.

This kind of strategy is typically commonplace in bureaucratic and authority-focused organisations, such as the military. These kinds of organisations rely on a clearly defined chain-of-command for decision-making.

By using and promoting these four approaches, managers and L&D professionals can overcome two important challenges in encouraging appropriate enterprise from staff. The first is to motivate individuals to use their initiative in decision-making so that it is aligned with business needs.

The second challenge is that different situations require different forms of initiative from staff. All four approaches attempt to limit the undesirable, unintended consequences of employee enterprise and maximise their initiative in appropriate ways.


About the author

Dr Tim Baker is an internationally recognised OD consultant and author of seven books including Performance Management for Agile Organization: Overthrowing the Eight Management Myths That Hold Businesses Back.


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