Generally speaking being a self-starter and behaving proactively is considered ‘a good thing’. Most organisations claim to want people who see what needs doing and ‘just do it’, who suggest better ways of doing things and who take responsibility for their own development. The manta is that it is easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission; in other words, do it until someone tells you to stop – then say sorry. Research shows that people who behave proactively are more likely to get promoted and are more purposeful and successful in managing their careers. 

But there is, of course, a dark side; the initiative paradox.

Companies often make the right noises about welcoming proactivity whilst quietly punishing proactive behaviour when it occurs.  For example, it has been found that people who tend to speak up and voice their concerns at work receive fewer promotions, and have lower salaries, than those who keep their heads down and voice fewer concerns (whistle-blowers come to mind).  Similarly, people with a can-do attitude are more likely to take initiatives that are seen by the company as risky or misguided.

As it happens, I have personal experience of coming to grief as a consequence of taking what I thought was an admirable initiative. One of my many student jobs was selling carpets in Selfridges. As the most junior member of staff I was put in charge of the off-cuts that had been turned into small hearth rugs.  The rugs were stacked in piles according to their quality and priced accordingly. One day an elderly lady spent ages looking through the pile of rugs priced at £7 (this was a long time ago!).  Having chosen one, she explained that she couldn’t pay for it until she had collected her pension on Thursday. So I took a small deposit and agreed to put the rug aside on the understanding that she would return to pay the balance and collect it before closing time on Thursday. 

Thursday came and the customer, true to her word, arrived clutching exactly the right money.  She wanted one more look at the rug she had chosen and it was only then that I noticed the label on the back said £9; the rug had been incorrectly placed on the wrong pile (perhaps by me!).  I hadn’t the heart to break the news to her, so I tore off the label, put it in my pocket, and made out the invoice for £7. The customer left, totally satisfied and  unaware of any irregularity. After she had gone, I tore up the label and put it in my waste paper bin and went off on my break.

When I returned, a deputation awaited me.  I was frog-marched into the buyer’s office where the incriminating £9 label had been retrieved from my bin and carefully reassembled.  Alongside it was the invoice I had made out for £7.   

My feeble claims to have done the right thing for the customer went unheeded and within 20 minutes I had been summarily dismissed and was standing outside in Oxford Street wondering what had happened.

Not a promising start in the world of work – and all because I used my initiative (well, that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it!).

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