The extra mile: How to help your team take initiative

“There are no traffic jams on the extra mile,” according to sales guru Zig Ziglar.

Most of the business owners I know would agree with that. One exasperated leader recently vented, “On almost a daily basis, I have to micromanage my team. They will do any task I assign to them, but they don’t take initiative. I have to keep assigning new tasks.”

There are many reasons why your team may be avoiding initiative. Laziness may be one reason; more often, it’s due to comfort with the status quo or past experiences with taking risks on the job. They’d rather hang back than to go too far and fail. As the leader, you can both encourage and expect your team to develop initiative. Here are three strategies.

Set Expectations

The good news is that many employees are willing to take initiative when they are clear on what that means. Define initiative in clear performance expectations for your team, such as:

  • Seeing something that needs to be done and doing it, without being told to do it.
  • Thinking ahead to what needs to be done after you finish a task, and taking that next action.
  • Not waiting for someone else to tell you what to do.
  • Initiative means being proactive to make things happen, not waiting and reacting when something happens.

Make Initiative Important and Visible

It’s a fact of leadership: Your team will pay attention to whatever you make important. Try these simple and powerful ways to keep initiative in front of your team.

  • Recognize team members who have shown initiative and the specific positive impact that their initiative has had on their area of responsibility. Include a few minutes at meetings to acknowledge these “initiators.”
  • When a task is completed, reinforce initiative with questions such as, “What’s the next step?” “What’s the follow-up?” You may need to repeat these questions on a regular basis. Over time, your team will begin to take the next step without being asked.

Get Comfortable with the Learning Curve

When you ask your team to take initiative, be prepared for the missteps that come with risk-taking. Initiative is a two-way street. You can’t expect your team to step up in a business culture that doesn’t tolerate small mistakes. When initiative goes sideways, address it privately with these steps:

  1. Appreciate their willingness to take initiative.
  2. Hold them responsible for the mistake.
  3. Identify options to correct or minimize the mistake.
  4. Ask, “What could you do differently in the future to change this outcome?”
  5. Hold them responsible for changing their actions.

You may never have traffic jams on your extra mile. But it’s worth the trip.


Elizabeth Usovicz is principal of WhiteSpace Consulting, specializing in top-line revenue strategies and business development coaching for high-growth companies, new ventures and business units within established companies; keynote speaking and strategy session facilitation. She can be reached at or (913) 638-8693.