The concept of taking initiative plays an important role in engineering. On a personal level, it’s correlated with career advancement and innovation. From a managerial perspective, encouraging and regulating the personal initiative of your employees is essential to maintaining a high performance workforce.


Initiatives can be discussed in concrete forms, such as government and business initiatives, or you can talk about initiative as a personal quality. “Personal initiative can be defined as a behavior syndrome that results in an individual taking an active and self-starting approach to work goals and tasks and persisting in overcoming barriers and setbacks. One of the consequences of such an active approach is that the individual changes the environment. This is in contrast to a passive approach, which is characterized by doing what one is told to do, giving up in the face of difficulties, and reacting to environmental demands” (V. J. Gawron, 2000, p.97). This article focuses on personal initiative and the role it plays in the engineering workforce and the Tufts Senior Capstone Electrical Engineering Project.


“To be successful in today’s global markets, companies need employees who actively attack problems, search for new opportunities and continuously improve their work environment” (Bledow and Frese, 2009, p.5). To this end, employees that have a high degree of personal initiative are more desirable as they tend to be more organized and creative and produce superior work (V. J. Gawron, 2000, p.97). Furthermore, people with a high degree of personal initiative “are more likely to find entrepreneurial success in different economic environments” (Frese, Fay, Hilburger, Leng, Tag, 1997, p.139). For this reason, the question of what drives personal initiative is of interest to both psychologists and to managers. Current research indicates that many factors affect employee personal initiative. For instance, employee initiative is higher when company initiatives are employee lead as opposed to being lead from the top-down (Amar, A. D, 2012, p.69).

Case Study

The University of Amsterdam and the University of Giessen performed a case study in which test subjects from East and West Germany were studied to test the hypothesis that personal initiative is correlated with “partners assessments, need for achievement, action orientation, problem-focused and passive emotion-focused coping, career planning and executing plans” (Frese, Fay, Hilburger, Leng, Tag, 1997, p.139). The following measures were used to quantify the personal initiative of the test subjects:

  • General initiative at work was measured by asking the subjects whether they had recently gone beyond what was formally required from them at work. If the answer was yes, subjects were asked to elaborate on this matter to validate their response and quantify their degree of personal initiative.
  • Tendency to overcome barriers was measured by presenting the subjects with hypothetical scenarios and asking them how they would respond.
  • Proactivity was measured by analyzing the subjects’ proposed solutions to the hypothetical scenarios.
  • Subjective interviewer evaluations were completed for all subjects.
  • Education initiative was measured by analyzing the subjects’ persistence of ideas in spite of setbacks and their focus on long-term goals.
  • Self-reported initiative was measured by having the subjects fill out a questionnaire.
  • Spouse-reported initiative was measured by having the subjects’ spouse fill out a questionnaire.

The results from case study confirmed the hypothesis that personal initiative is correlated with partners assessments, need for achievement, action orientation, problem-focused and passive emotion-focused coping, career planning and executing plans. Other related findings from the study were that entrepreneurs tended to have a very high degree of personal initiative and that unemployed subjects with high degree of personal initiative tended to find jobs more quickly than those with a low degree of personal initiative.

Senior Capstone Project

From identifying your project and adviser to meeting deadlines and managing risks, personal initiative is the key to a successful senior project. If you do not take the initiative over the summer and at the beginning of senior year to identify what project you would like to work on, you will likely find yourself working on something that you are not interested in. This is the worst possible scenario, as you will not enjoy what should be the most fun project of your undergraduate career. Once you select a project, you must thoroughly research related works so that you can set reasonable goals for what you are trying to accomplish and identify the potential risks that you may encounter. Lastly, it is important to plan ahead to meet course and sponsor deadlines and have a working prototype by May.

Cited References

  • Amar, A. D. (2012). How Managers Succeed by Letting Employees Lead. Organizational Dynamics, 62-71. ProQuest. DOI: 10.1016/j.orgdyn.2011.12.00
  • Bledow, R., & Frese, M. (2009). A situational judgment test of personal initiative and its relationship to performance. Personnel Psychology, (62), 229-258. DOI: 10.1111/j.1744-6570.2009.01137.x
  • Chiaburu, D. S., Carpenter, N. C. (2013). Employees’ Motivation for Personal Initiative: The Joint Influence of Status and Communion Striving. Journal of Personnel Psychology, 97-103. DOI: 10.1027/1866-5888/a000089
  • Frese, Fay, Hilburger, Leng, Tag (1997), The concept of personal initiative: Operationalization, rliabilit and validity in two German samples. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology. The British Psychological Society, (70), 139-161. DOI: 110.1111/j.2044-8325.1997.tb00639.x
  • Gawron, V. J. (2000). The Concept of Personal Initiative: An Overview of Validity Studies. Human Performance Measures Handbook, 97-124. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. OCLC WorldCat Permalink: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/43615800
  • Krauss, S. I., Frese, M., Friedrich, C. (2007). Psychological action strategy characteristics, entrepreneurial orientation, and business performance: A longitudinal analysis among Zimbabwean small business owners. University of Giessen, Department of Psychology.