The Vector View on Encouraging Responsibility and Initiative (OR Creating an Empowered Workforce)

March 10th, 2016   •   no comments   

On September 28, 2015, I wrote a blog about The Vector View on Empowerment: It Used to Be Such a Nice Little Word. In it I described the differences in our view of the use of the words “engagement” and “empowerment.” I provided a bit of history around the concept of empowerment and a bit on how it plays out in an organization.

The key point was that in reality empowerment often gets interpreted at “abdication” on the part of management. I stated “as management empowers employees, it looks as though management abdicated its own responsibility in getting things done like fixing problems and achieving results. The giving of power is very different than creating an atmosphere and a culture where people take the initiative to seek power and assume personal responsibility.”

What we want is to create those opportunities for organizational members to step up, take some individual initiative and assume personal responsibility. Again, it is not about giving it; it is about people taking it. How do you get people to do that?


We hear a lot, these days, about delegating authority and responsibility, or developing initiative, and the benefits to be derived from it. But what is really meant by this? One type of delegation of authority occurs when someone, such as an attorney, is given authority and direction to act on behalf of another individual or organization. This is a limited definition – and the benefits are correspondingly limited. In fact, such a definition can even cheapen the concept, when it is used solely as a device for moving responsibility to another. Managers have been heard to say, “I have given Paul the authority to fix the problem,” when what’s really meant is, “I have directed him to fix the problem (so if it isn’t solved it’s not my fault).”

Fortunately, most people realize that simply giving a work assignment or allocating responsibility and authority does not by itself enable someone to effectively take initiative. Initiative comes from a belief that leads the individual to take action.

  • You cannot give people initiative; they must take it
  • You can destroy initiative:
    • by over-control and penalties for initiative.
    • by destroying people’s confidence in their decision making ability.
    • by making the risk of failure unacceptably high.

Initiative is the assumption of power. It occurs when an individual chooses to act on his own. It is always a personal choice. You can tell someone that they have all the authority necessary to act, but the final decision to take action belongs to that person.

The decision to take initiative requires that the individual. ..

  1. believes the environment gives him/her permission to take action;
  2. has the confidence to give him/herself permission to take action.

Although the individual must make these judgments, the decision to take power is influenced by:

  • the leader
  • the team
  • the environment


Permission to ActLeaders can help people believe they have permission to act, if they do the following:

  • delegate authority consistently and appropriately
    • establish an environment that encourages people to work things out for themselves
    • demonstrate trust and respect
    • encourage co-operation among team members
    • often act as a “cheerleader” for the team, eagerly endorsing good ideas and contributions.

Confidence to Act- Individuals’ perception of their competence, and their confidence in themselves are based on previous experience. This is why being labeled a “failure” can operate in such a negative fashion.

Confidence also depends in part on the extent to which others provide support and encouragement, and express their belief that you can succeed. This is why coaching and encouragement for the leader can be powerful. If leaders act as if they believe that others will do their best, they are much more likely to do so.

On the other hand, there are many things leaders do which can destroy confidence: for example, publicly and arbitrary over-riding decisions.’ or insisting on frequent and detailed reports can erode confidence.

People will feel greater confidence to act when leaders do the following:

  • help them to develop their skills and knowledge
  • reward and recognize performance (and avoid punishing early attempts at initiative)
  • encourage innovation and some risk-taking
  • provide people with opportunities to demonstrate what they can do
  • express or demonstrate confidence in people

The leader can also model certain “facilitative” behaviors. These include:

  • courage – leaders that show persistent courage in the face of obstacles are more likely to inspire courage in staff
  • self-sacrifice – leaders who put off their’ own needs and comforts for the sake of the job can inspire others to greater efforts
    • success – a string of successes builds trust in the leader’s judgment, and usually creates greater confidence on the part of staff that they, too, can be successful.

These all must be done at the “right” level: excessive zeal can be seen in a negative light. For example, reckless courage is seen as foolhardiness; excessive self-sacrifice can be seen as martyrdom, and long strings of success can result in unwarranted arrogance – or may mean that only “safe” actions are taken.


Team practices that enhance initiative include:

  • supporting each other
  • encouraging co-operation over competition
  • recognizing the value of each member’s efforts and contributions

The last item is of particular importance; unless people feel that others genuinely value their work, they are unlikely to be willing to take risks or exert more than the minimum effort.


Environmental factors which significantly affect initiative are:

  • sudden relief from or lowering of control – removal from close monitoring or relief from bureaucratic procedures (e.g., a new start-up situation)
  • emergencies – when risk of inaction is greater than risk of action
    • a history of initiative – freedom builds on itself. As people begin to take initiative, and experience the rewards of successfully doing so, they become more responsible and pro-active – and find it almost impossible to go into a highly controlled environment.


We all know that we can do a better job if we have help. Delegation is a way to distribute tasks between ourselves and others. But task distribution is not the only purpose of delegation.

There are three purposes for delegation. They are:

  • Assignment – to distribute the workload
  • Recognition – to build confidence
  • Development – to build competence

The last two are of particular importance to initiative.

Delegation for Recognition

Delegation for recognition means providing opportunities for people to demonstrate to themselves and to the world just what they are capable of doing. It builds confidence through public recognition of accomplishment and success.

This generally means assigning someone a high profile task that you think they are ready to do. For example, letting your assistant make the presentation of the plan you’ve worked on together to the Big Boss. It is best, however, if you personally have available the means to back them up if they go wrong.

Delegation for Development

This is directed at helping others to learn to solve problems on their own – working with them to improve their skills and knowledge. This may involve giving them an assignment in an area that is new to them, or helping them to take more responsibility in a familiar area than they have been doing.

Levels of Delegation

Managers need to assess the level of initiative that is appropriate for a given employee and a given task or set of responsibilities. The level of initiative may vary from employee to employee and from responsibility to responsibility.

Delegating tasks to develop initiative requires:

  1. Knowing the current ability of the person – so that you can choose tasks that stretch the person’s capability.
  2. Working with the person as needed, and ensuring enough support to minimize the chances of failure, and to ensure that the consequences of failure will not be unacceptably high. Learning does take place when people fail – but one of the things we always learn from failure is that we can fail. Too much failure – or too large/public a failure will simply lead people to avoid situations with any risk of failure in the future.

The manager who totally abdicates responsibility for a situation in the belief that it will develop initiative, often increases the likelihood of failure. Rather than increase initiative, abdication usually leads to employee dissatisfaction and avoidance of responsibility. There are exceptions, when people rise to the occasion under difficult circumstances and perform successfully but we want to make success the rule, not the exception. The chart below illustrates a series of stages for delegation that can help managers effectively develop both the competence and the confidence to take initiative.

For a clearer picture of this, please refer to the following:

cultural due diligence vector group delegation model schematic - The Vector View on Encouraging Responsibility and Initiative (OR Creating an Empowered Workforce)

Vector Group consultants work with a number of clients on a global basis to create those conditions that not only promote taking initiative and personal responsibility but expect it, support it and maintain it as part and parcel of the culture.

©Vector Group, Inc., 2016




Gary W. Craig is the Managing Partner and COO for the Americas and Asia at Vector Group, Inc. You may reach him at [email protected]. Vector Group is a global consulting firm specializing in systematic organizational diagnosis and interventions to ensure that corporate strategy, culture, and infrastructure are aligned to achieve breakthrough success.  Please visit our website at or call us at (800) 566-0877.

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