The Anatomy of Managerial Initiative

The five degrees of initiative of the managers

Below is an excerpt from "Management Time: Who's Got the Monkey?" (HBR)

There are five degrees of initiative that the manager can exercise in relation to the boss and to the system:

  1. wait until told (lowest initiative);
  2. ask what to do;
  3. recommend, then take resulting action;
  4. act, but advise at once;
  5. and act on own, then routinely report (highest initiative).

Clearly, the manager should be professional enough not to indulge in initiatives 1 and 2 in relation either to the boss or to the system. A manager who uses initiative 1 has no control over either the timing or the content of boss-imposed or system-imposed time and thereby forfeits any right to complain about what he or she is told to do or when. The manager who uses initiative 2 has control over the timing but not over the content. Initiatives 3, 4, and 5 leave the manager in control of both, with the greatest amount of control being exercised at level 5.

In relation to subordinates, the manager’s job is twofold. First, to outlaw the use of initiatives 1 and 2, thus giving subordinates no choice but to learn and master “Completed Staff Work.” Second, to see that for each problem leaving his or her office there is an agreed-upon level of initiative assigned to it, in addition to an agreed-upon time and place for the next manager-subordinate conference. The latter should be duly noted on the manager’s calendar.

👉 Summary: When an employee brings a problem to you, outlaw use of level 1 or 2. Agree on and assign level 3, 4, or 5 to the monkey*. Take no more than 15 minutes to discuss the problem.

* Monkey: It’s from “monkey-on-the-back” metaphor, and means a task that needs to be done/handled/responded to.