When I speak to small business owners and early-stage entrepreneurs, I hear a lot of the same struggles – too many to dive into in one article.

But behind many of the challenges are root issues that go deeper than the symptoms. It’s like going to the doctor complaining of a fever. You probably have a bunch of other things going on (runny nose, cough, etc.), but the fever is like the big warning sign that something’s really wrong. The virus at work inside your body is actually at the root of what’s wrong with you, but you don’t see or feel the virus, per se. You pay the most attention to the fever.

The same thing happens in organizations. Typical symptoms often revolve around lagging profitability, efficiency, velocity, communication, or a slew of other Ops-type terms. These things create discomfort for the business, so it’s easy to think they’re the real problems. But there’s one symptom that should set off warning bells for you. It points directly to a bigger root problem just a like a fever signals a virus.

Lack of initiative is the biggest symptom of a viral problem, and the viral problem at play is a distrusting culture.

Absence of trust kills individual initiative

Why do I say this?

At the base of the Five Dysfunctions of a Team pyramid is ‘Absence of Trust.’ When you don’t have trust, you can’t build a high-performing team. You may not be able to keep employees more than a few months. Your culture won’t thrive even if you have a lot of frills and shiny objects at your disposal.

When owners think that no one can do it better than them or do it “their way,” they keep a death grip on the organization and rule by fear or with overbearing control. Employees become order takers – not initiative takers. When profitability isn’t where it should be or when sales slump, owners complain about their team’s lack of gusto, ignorant this this huge symptom actually points to a lack of trust within the company’s culture.

Build Initiative Back into Business Through Trust

Now, if you’re a founder it’s tough to place trust in people who didn’t start where you started. I get that. But you got to where you are by taking risks. If you want to bring out initiative in others, try this:

  1. Freely place trust in the first person you hire (assuming you know how to hire well) and let them loose.
    • If they succeed, you’ll multiply yourself and lighten the load a little bit.
    • If they fail, they’ll either learn and get better or leave. Rinse and repeat until your first hire succeeds.
  2. Freely place trust in the second and third person you hire.
    • If they succeed, you’ll multiply another piece of yourself again and again.
    • If they fail, they’ll either learn and get better or leave. Rinse and repeat until your first few hires succeed.
  3. Do this over and over every time you hire (and allow your #1, 2, and 3 hires to place their trust in others).
    • This builds an army of trusted initiative-takers who feel like they own a piece of the businesses’ success and failure.
    • Their desire to succeed won’t be fueled by fear.
    • They’ll be invested because you’ve allowed them to spread their wings and see what they’re made of.
    • Your load will be a little lighter each time.
  4. Consistently acknowledge and celebrate your team’s successes.
  5. Allow people to fail and learn from it.

If you do these things, you’ll never experience the lack of initiative symptom.

It’s Not Just for Small Business

And even if you’re not a founder or small business owner, the points above apply. You can be the CEO of a major organization or the manager of a team in a Fortune 500 company. It really doesn’t matter. You just need to recognize the symptom so you can tackle the root problem. If you find yourself griping about your team’s lack of initiative, ask yourself if there’s really a culture of trust in place.

When you acknowledge the lack of initiative symptom for what it is – a major clue that you have the virus of mistrust at the root of your problems, you can start taking action to build a culture that grows through the Five Dysfunctions of a Team and achieves higher performance.