Skip to main content

How to step up -- and stand out

Julie Felton/Getty Images/iStockPhoto/Julie Felton/Getty Images/iStockPhoto

What's your workplace gripe? Lousy morale, outdated equipment, inefficiency, lack of work-life balance? Or maybe your uncaring boss or lazy team mates?

We all have reasons to complain, but managers and co-workers don't really want to hear about them. According to a recent study by LinkedIn, employees' top pet peeves are people who complain too much and people who don't take responsibility.

This presents a golden opportunity to resolve that in 2012, you'll be the one who stops moaning and instead becomes part of the solution, says John Izzo, whose latest book, Stepping Up: How Taking Responsibility Changes Everything, is being released next week. ( Click here to read an excerpt.)

Story continues below advertisement

"Whenever you find yourself saying, 'Somebody should do something about this,' turn that around and ask yourself, 'What could I do about this?'" said Dr. Izzo, a Vancouver-based leadership consultant with nearly 20 years experience in a wide variety of industries.

It's amazing how few people do this, he added.

"We're kind of herd animals at heart," explained Dr. Izzo, who has a doctorate in organizational communication. "From our early evolutionary history, our instincts tell us it's safest to stay in the pack. … Somehow we feel safer doing what everyone else is doing and not sticking our necks out and taking initiative."

Find solutions, not excuses

In a challenging economy, the protective instinct gets exaggerated because people worry about their security and back away from challenging assignments, figuring they should just keep quiet and not make waves. "But that's exactly the wrong thing to do. When times are tough and employers are looking for ways to save money, the last thing you want people to say is, 'I hardly noticed you were here,'" he said.

"Bosses know it's a tough economy and they want to see people willing to do what they can in spite of that."

He cites the example of a telephone company he works with in the United States that has a number of cellphone stores with long-term leases in dying shopping malls. "Managers of those stores have a tough assignment because there's not much walk-by traffic and they come in with a lot of excuses for why they don't meet their sales goals. They all say, 'You know what it's like out there. Sorry we can't do it.'"

Story continues below advertisement

But this year one manager told his team, "Look, we know this is a tough situation and we're going to do something about it." He sent his staff into the community and to lobbies of office towers to hand out business cards. "They ended up having the second-highest results in the company, even though they had more constraints than most had," Dr. Izzo said.

Turn gossip into group action

You may think you're gaining credibility with colleagues by being a complainer, but he said the LinkedIn survey shows that complainers actually lose status with co-workers. "[They]may back you up in the break room but later tell people, 'He's always complaining and I'm sick of it.' Meanwhile, you'll bug your bosses and reduce your brand within the organization."

Instead, look at what you personally can do to start to make a change. When colleagues say that someone should do something about a problem or issue, make that the start of a dialogue into what all of you can do together to make the situation better. For example, if the problem is being on call after work hours, the first step could be to get co-workers to agree to stop e-mailing each other on weekends, or to not hold meetings outside normal work hours.

Building allies is a process of going to others, taking about your idea and telling them you would appreciate their support. "Once you've found a few allies who want change, you can keep that number growing and turn the complaints into a dialogue on solutions," Dr. Izzo said.

Speak up to step up

Story continues below advertisement

This goes for dealing with your boss as well. So-called "constructive irritants," those people who challenge things and propose ideas for solutions, are consistently rated higher by managers than people who merely complain about problems and point fingers in blame. Most of the time, he said, leaders respond well to an employee who comes to them with ideas about solving problems. "The last thing leaders want to hear is, 'We've got a problem and you really need to do something about it."

But simply having an idea and presenting it to your manager is only the first step. Dr. Izzo said many employees offer ideas or suggestions, but if the boss isn't completely supportive, they give up and decide that's the last time they're going to step up. "We have to understand that we may have an idea that is only a piece of the puzzle and we need to get into a conversation, rather than saying, 'Here's my idea, take it or leave it.'"

Bosses need to step up, too

Dr. Izzo's advice about taking responsibility doesn't apply only to employees, however: "I'm not letting bosses off the hook. Leaders have the same tendency the rest of us do to avoid stepping up in [times of]uncertainty because they don't want to be the one to mess up."

At the same time, many leaders often don't punt the problems to their team. Some bosses get too controlling during difficult times, when they really should be involving colleagues and staff in making decisions.

The wise leader, Dr. Izzo said, is one who encourages initiative by having the wisdom and humility to say, "I can't solve this without your help."


Start small: Rather than trying to devise a master plan to fix all aspects of a problem, start with one thing you can act on immediately.

Don't be intimidated: You may not have a senior position, but that doesn't mean you can't have influence. By speaking up, you'll raise your credibility.

Get past the problem: Rather than restating what's wrong, start looking at ways to fix it.

Join forces: Find allies and discuss what you can do together.

Watch your language

Rather than saying this is what "you" should do, phrase suggestions as what "we" might do.

Make it a habit

Every time you take initiative, you build experiences that make it mentally easier to do it again. Taking responsibility may even train your brain to see more opportunities to step up.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct Licensing Options
As of December 20, 2017, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles as we switch to a new provider. We are behind schedule, but we are still working hard to bring you a new commenting system as soon as possible. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to