Don’t wait for your boss to get started!

When your Boss gives you an assignment, you’re already behind schedule!

Do you plan ahead and propose actions and solutions to your Boss? Or do you wait until the Boss tells you what to do, hoping those instructions will empower you?

That’s the defining difference in an empowered employee: Freedom and Confidence to take action! Team members who don’t feel empowered are would-be passengers sitting on their own doorstep waiting for the Empowerment Express to  pick them up. If you want to take the trip, you’ve got to go to the station!

Three keys to empowerment are Planning, Initiative, and Partnership.

Be a strategic planner

Most organizations spend too much time and energy on ‘obligatory’ and ‘urgent’ planning. Obligatory plans are those we paste into the annual review to convince management that we have worthwhile goals (whether or not we actually get around to meeting those goals). Urgent plans are quickly inserted into a situation after a problem has arrived. Both approaches are weakened when they fail advance overall, long-term goals – they lack systemic impact.

The gap between short-term planning and system planning is an open invitation to team members to increase their influence. By thinking strategically and answering questions that haven’t been asked yet, you become part of your team’s unofficial ‘think tank.’ To begin your strategic thinking process, ask what challenges your organization and your boss (and your boss’s boss!) might face in the coming year, then offer creative alternatives before those needs become urgent.

Executives go on strategic planning retreats to temporarily leave behind obligatory and urgent concerns so that they can visualize the big picture. But they also leave behind highly-qualified information sources – their team! Imagine how much more creative, realistic, and worthy of support are plans that flow from the people who must actually carry out the plans!

Even if you aren’t now considered part of your organization’s strategic planning team, you can benefit by personally designing a strategic plan for your role which supports your team’s major objectives. A plan that doesn’t integrate with the organizational purpose doesn’t meet the acid test for ‘strategic.’

Jump-start your imagination with a series ‘What if…?’ questions and a commitment to finding at least a few answers that are ‘out of the box.’ When you start to recognize interconnected needs and suggest timely plans that thoughtfully consider the entire organization, you are taking charge of opportunity. While not every plan you conceive will be implemented, planning is a skill that improves with practice.

Tip: A strategy means you’ve considered other people’s needs.
If you’re doing something because it will make you feel good – it isn’t strategic.

Take initiative

When you have a plan of your own, the next question is whether to implement it independently or wait until it is formally approved. Acting on a need outside of your usual parameters takes a thoughtful combination of daring and trust.

Fear is the enemy of Initiative. Will your plan work? Will the boss approve? Might there be unpleasant repercussions?

Considerations to help decide whether to act or wait for approval include:

  • Does this serve the team’s purpose, or just my needs?
  • Is this something the Boss will want to review, or is it really something the Boss will just be happy when it’s done?
  • Will this displace anything important from my task list? Dropping an assigned task may be irresponsible.
  • What are the possible risks and outcomes?
  • What does this look like from the perspective of others who may be affected?
  • Have I communicated openly? Taking initiative without telling others what you’re doing appears secretive and disruptive. Well-stated intentions earn respect and cooperation and invite additional information that can advance your plan.

After considering the situation, select your plan and take action – whether that means taking your own initiative with confidence or presenting the idea with enthusiasm to attract allies.

The tightrope between independent action and consultation is delicate. Getting started on your own shows initiative, but keeping things secret shows a lack of teamwork and consideration.

Tip: Keep your Boss informed.
Never let your Boss be surprised to hear what you’re doing from somebody else.


Is your relationship with your Boss vertical or horizontal?

In a vertical model, the Boss is in charge, tells you what to do, when to do it, and reminds you to wash your hands when you’re done. It’s a parent-child relationship, and the parties in a vertical relationship often start behaving like an exhausted parent and a rebellious child.

In a horizontal model, your Boss trusts you to see what needs to be done and do it. It is a partnership, and the Boss values not having to spend energy exercising authority over you.

Some people don’t want the responsibility of a partnership. They keep the Boss thinking like a parent, which means it will take extra time for the Boss to recognize and adjust when a team member starts acting like a partner.

Your communication style is the most obvious signal of your partnership intent. When you figure out the best methods and times for communicating, you are seen as considerate and self-sufficient.

A considerate person doesn’t dump on their partner, so don’t dump problems on your Boss. Those at the bottom of a vertical relationship ask the Boss to solve their problems. Those in a horizontal relationship present concerns and proposed solutions at the same time. This raises your communication from complaining to problem-solving, which increases your influence.

Helpful people keep their partners informed. As you become consciously aware of issues your Boss needs to address, you learn how to keep your job aligned with the organization’s direction.

A valued partner doesn’t require a lot of attention. By getting your job done in a timely manner and solving your own problems, you become known as ‘reliable and self-directed.’ Your Boss spends the greatest amount of time on problem areas. If your needs take too much of the Boss’s time, you’re seen as a problem.

Tip: Never speak ill of your Boss.
Negative energy will make it’s way back and undermine your partnership.


Empowerment isn’t something that comes to you – you have to go get it.

That means being as committed to partnership with your Boss as you want your Boss to be committed to you. Your strategic ideas, well-chosen initiatives, and considerate relationships will build your level of trust with your co-workers.

That’s empowerment.

Gregory Lay speaks and writes about workplace solutions. Contact him at Permission is usually granted to reproduce this article in its entirety in organizational publications, with credit to the author.

(c) 2009 Accidental Career