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Leaders: 5 Keys to Building Ownership

If you've been following this series, you know it’s important to build ownership and alignment when collaborating with others. Last time, we looked at what it takes to build alignment on teams. Here, we do the same for ownership.

The concept of ownership is simple, but widely misunderstood. It’s defined as the extent to which we feel or believe that something is ours. People can feel ownership for anything really: An object (car, house, piece of artwork), an idea (problem, decision, design concept), or even a process (cooking recipe, business strategy, learning technique). And what makes ownership so important is that people tend to invest in, and take care of, the things for which they feel a high degree of ownership.

Notice that I didn't say “people take care of the things they own.” That’s clearly not always the case. Many of us mistreat things, or take them for granted, despite owning them. We might own a car, but fail to change the oil regularly. As a member of a team, we might be responsible for a task, (i.e., we own that task in the eyes of our teammates,) but procrastinate and fail to meet the team’s quality standards. In these cases, we’re expressing low ownership for the things that we own. In general, wherever ownership is low, we’re likely to see poor commitment and follow-through. But when ownership is high, we tend to get the job done. We communicate and seek whatever support is needed. And when appropriate, we proactively inform others about any anticipated risks.

Simply put, high ownership leads to high engagement, which is a key ingredient to generating great work. What then determines the level of ownership that we feel? Here's a good rule of thumb: Ownership increases when we invest, and in proportion to the value we ascribe to our investments. We can invest financially, creatively or energetically, but the more we invest, the more we’ll naturally develop a sense of ownership. For example, kids who help pay for their own college education tend to engage more fully, get better grades and derive more benefit than those whose parents finance it all. They feel a greater sense of ownership for their education. And when they've worked hard to earn that tuition, their ownership will be even greater than if the money came to them in more passive ways.

It's worth noting that the investments we make are often intangible, and can be subconscious. We can develop a vision, a dream, a fear or an ambition. The fact that they spring from our imagination makes them no less effective at building our ownership. Again, we’re talking about a feeling here, not a legal status. So we can develop a sense of ownership for anything, including stuff we have “no right” to own, e.g., who gets the promotion, or where Junior goes to college, or what color the logo will be. When we become attached or feel entitled to a particular outcome, that simply means we've developed some degree of ownership.

Our job as collaborative leaders is to operationalize these insights. That is, to increase the level of ownership that our teams (and that we ourselves) feel for our work, prompting optimal levels of engagement. Here are five guidelines related to building ownership:

1. Avoid Using Carrots & Sticks

Traditionally, employee performance has been “managed” through the use of “carrots and sticks.” On the carrot side, managers might promise raises, increased benefits, or a nice corner office. When performance suffers, employees might expect less attractive assignments, or a performance improvement plan, possibly even the threat of termination. Although these management tools may have their place, research demonstrates that they are not all that effective at motivating engagement. In fact, the best they tend to produce over the long term is compliance, especially among knowledge-workers. And at worst, as Gallup’s State of the American Workplace suggests, some of these techniques actually undermine performance.

To do: Offer compensation and other benefits that are competitive and sufficient to meet your worker’s needs, but don’t expect those things to build ownership. Whenever possible, avoid the use of “sticks” as a means to address performance issues.

(Stock Options Are Great, but...)

Here's a corollary to guideline #1: Many leaders believe that they’re already taking the necessary steps: Their companies offer employee stock option plans (ESOPs), profit sharing plans, or other incentives aimed at “building ownership.” And it’s true that such programs promote broader interest in the financial success of the company. But caring about the company’s profits or stock price is not the same as, nor does it necessarily generate, a feeling of ownership in one’s work.

To do: Although profit-sharing and stock option plans can be useful in rounding out a competitive compensation package, avoid relying on such programs as a means to promote employee engagement and follow-through.

2. Ask Open Ended Questions

Again, ownership is built through investment. And the best way to inspire investment begins with asking the right questions – questions that help workers connect the dots between their work and what they value. When we understand how our work supports our own interests and values, we are far more likely to invest (creatively, energetically, emotionally) than when we’re simply punching the clock for a paycheck.

To Do: First, be clear and build alignment around what success looks like. Then, ask open-ended questions so that team members can describe, in their own words, how the work will serve their values, their team and the company. (See insert.) Make it safe for people to be honest in their responses, and listen closely. When those responses seem less than genuine or enthusiastic, get curious. They may not be ready to engage fully.

3. Learn to Let Go... a little

Once people feel inspired to contribute, they are naturally positioned to build their ownership. The trick is then to get out of their way. There’s nothing more likely to erode engagement than a leader who second-guesses the team’s every move. This is a common stumbling block for new, and especially super smart managers. Great leaders give their teams plenty of rope, not only allowing them to fail on occasion, but even in a way celebrating those failures. Managers who feel compelled to anticipate every possible misstep have difficulty allowing their teams to learn and grow, and end up becoming a “load bearing wall.” That’s neither healthy nor sustainable.

To Do: Balance your needs for alignment and accountability with the team’s need for autonomy. Encourage the team to review their own work, and to seek input from wide-ranging stakeholder groups, rather than looking exclusively to upper management for guidance and feedback. When failures occur, ask the team to capture what they learned.

4. Use Top-Down Decision Making Sparingly

From the perspective of most workers, company decisions (especially strategic decisions) are often simply handed down from on high. Regardless of how brilliant or wise those decisions may be from an objective standpoint, workers tend to feel very little ownership for decisions that they've had no part in making. This is particularly true when those decisions run counter to the other legitimate interests of workers, e.g., in relocating the business, outsourcing, retooling a production line, or limiting insurance providers.

To do: Offer employees sufficient and early insight into the strategic direction of the company. Whenever possible, invite them to contribute to that direction in order to build their ownership. When decisions must be made autocratically, be explicit about the rationale and seek to build alignment with employees in advance.

5. Leverage Your Company’s Purpose

Most companies have a mission statement and a set of core values. Many also have a vision statement, describing what the world will look like when they've fully realized their mission. Taken together, these things represent the company’s purpose: The reason why it exists. Of course, not all companies engage consistently in business practices that are aligned with their stated mission and core values. But companies that have integrity-of-purpose can and should leverage it to build ownership at all levels throughout their organization.

To do: Hopefully, your company’s purpose inspires you. When you’re hiring, or even when you’re forming partnerships, alliances, or any business relationships, seek to find people whose values are also aligned with your company’s. That alignment can only improve the chances that ownership will organically take root and grow over time.

Summing It Up

Because ownership is an inside job, it can be difficult to measure in others. When we’re moving fast, it’s all too easy to assume the best. By the time we realize what’s going on – that ownership was lacking – it can be too late. Hopefully by now, you won’t be so likely make that mistake yourself. And remember, building ownership is only half the job. Successful collaboration also requires us to build alignment across the team and among the stakeholders. In my next post, we’ll dive a bit deeper, looking at what it takes to build and support a culture of shared ownership, and why that’s important.


Mark Voorsanger is a consultant, speaker and executive coach who has been leading and managing teams for more than 25 years. He is a member of the training team for the Collaborative Operating System, a powerful framework for teams and organizations that need to collaborate effectively.

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