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Culture Challenge: Taking initiative & ownership

Submitted by on Friday, 7 May 20102 Comments

Having team members ‘take initiative’ and ‘take ownership’ is a theme that recurs in many companies based not only in Thailand but also other parts of Asia.

When we discuss these characteristics, managers often identify ‘culture’ as being central to the equation, without perhaps knowing how to tackle the problems they encounter when employees seem not to follow actions through to conclusion or proactively consider ways of helping their company.

Without wishing to espouse a ‘one size fits all’ approach to dealing with problems of ‘initiative’ and ‘ownership’, we thought looking at the #1 root cause, and solutions to it, may help.

‘Locus of Control’ is the key

Following surveys of hundreds of Thai staff at supervisory and management level, one characteristic that stands out is that the vast majority has an ‘external’ (as opposed to ‘internal’) locus of control.

Externally-focused people will expect things to happen to them, tend to be more fatalistic, and deep down believe that humans have no control over their destinies and that life is largely a matter of chance.

Internally-focused people, by contrast, believe that life is what you make of it, human agency has a large part to play in a person’s destiny, and if you want something enough and bend your will to achieve it, you can get it.

As we have seen, in Thailand a large percentage of management teams fall into the latter camp. So how do you explain this?

The importance of Beliefs

One favourite explanation is that the belief system (predominately determined by Buddhism but also including concepts of astrology and  outright luck) is one explanation of a high external locus of control.

It’s worth noting, at this point, Theravada Buddhism does not, by itself, encourage a bias either way. To take the concept of ‘kharma’, for example, this accepts both that all living things are a product of the past (external locus), but also that our decisions, choices and actions shape our future (internal focus).

Where Buddhism is essentially balanced on this scale, it’s hard to see an obsession with astrology as being anything other than an external locus of control preoccupation.

Physical Environment

Another factor that affects our attitude towards responsibility and action is the physical environment we grow up in and (more importantly) the beliefs and habits that grow from this.

In an agricultural society (which most SE Asian countries were 50 years ago), those beliefs and habits are caused by the realities associated with producing a good crop.

In the tropics, due to the realities of the weather patterns in the seasons, there is less the individual can do to boost crop yields than, say, in more temperate climates. Hence a bias to a more external locus of control? – This is a matter for debate.

As more workers transition from agricultural labour to industrial or service-oriented labour, often these beliefs remain, and are more embedded in the case of countries having a collective culture (like Thailand, for example).

Does this mean that your staff are a product of their circumstances and their past?

What you can do to promote initiative & ownership in your team!

Faced with the dilemma above, managers could take an equally fatalistic view and claim that ‘that’s the culture’ or ‘it is what it is’ and do nothing.

Alternatively, they may be more ‘internally focused’ and take the view that ‘life is what you make it’!

Managers with the latter belief system may want to do the following when faced with initiative and ownership problems:

Action 1: Discover & unlock passions

Most trainers will tell you that ‘setting goals’ is the key. But goals that do not resonate last as long as the words that leave one’s mouth.

The key instead is first to discover each individual’s passions, and if the individual cannot identify those through reflection, then to start with interests. This is a personal process which has nothing to do with the organisation the individual works for, yet is fundamental to his or her overall performance.

When this process is complete, only then can we start articulating goals that resonate to the ‘whole person’ (not only the ‘robot’ that is our working lives).

>> If you’re interested in this approach, check out our Productivity Factor Programme, found here >>

Action 2: Discover & mobilise Talents

There is a lot of confusion surrounding what ‘talents’ are. There need not be, since there is only one tool that objectively discovers each individual’s talents: the ‘synaptic connections’ formed at birth that determine which tasks and roles our minds most want to perform. That tool is the Highlands Ability Battery.

Study after study has  shown empirically that the connection between a person’s talents and the job that person does is the #1 determinant of happiness in the job and engagement to that job. And more engaged indviduals are more likely to take initiative and ownership, as those studies have shown.

TalentSo instead of finding out which college or university a person went to, or what they studied or even what job experience they had as a predictor to job effectiveness, instead discover that person’s talents, and match the job to the person.

>> If you would like to discover your team’s talents and innate drivers, you may like to look at Talent Factor. Details of the one day programme can be found here >>

Action 3: Articulate and practise the behaviours expected of Leaders

There is almost as much confusion with regard to defining ‘leadership’ and ‘leadership behaviours’ as there is with regard to concepts such as ‘talent’, ‘culture’ and ‘motivation’.

Because of the research conducted by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner over three decades in dozens of countries, and captured in their book The Leadership Challenge, again, that confusion need not exist.

Kouzes and Posner have discovered the five key behaviours that team constituents expect of their leaders worldwide. As part of our Leadership Challenge Workshop, we train participants in those concepts and how to turn them into action.


If you would like to enhance the initiative and ownership of your team or individuals in that team, it’s essential to start of with a proactive mindset yourself!

Beliefs, behaviours and habits can all change. In order to do so one must first understand the concepts that need to change (‘head’), engage the desire to change (‘heart’) and then create a set of practices over 28 Days that ensures that change happens in the workplace (‘hand’).

Talent Technologies’ management training programmes feature all the elements above to help you create happy, bright and effective teams in Thailand and Asia!

Please also feel free to add your comments below – we’d love to hear your views on this subject!


Talent Technologies :: Management Training Programmes in Thailand and South-East Asia


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