Promoting Ownerschip: 7 Crucial Conditions

Picture of a ownership craftsman at work

Promoting Ownership; introduction

Why is it that some employees show more initiative, agency and ‘task ownership’ than others? How is it that people sometimes show more agency in their private affairs than at work? As a manager, how can you stimulate agency and task ownership with your employees? Can you encourage ownership at all? In this article, I will present a framework of some vital conditions to stimulate ownership in your organisation.

Ownerschip is needed

We require much of our employees these days: to be flexible, to be proactive, to keep an eye on company targets but also to think and act ‘outside of the box’… But what’s behind all these requirements is the wish for people to really take care of their work. They are proud of their achievements, are happy to build and contribute, and speak with passion about the work they do. I call this ‘task ownership’ or simply ‘ownership’; taking on a task or goal with the full responsibility that comes with it.

Promoting ownership and responsibility

The theme of responsibility is sometimes handled awkwardly in our working life. At home, we naturally assume responsibility for our family, we take important decisions, to get married, take out a mortgage, have kids… in short, we are accustomed to making all kinds of important choices in our lives. But at work, it sometimes seems that the most important, if not all decisions are mainly made by management, people with a higher salary scale because they have a ‘responsible’ function.

This doesn’t have to be so. Of course, you can expect a surgeon, for example, to feel fully responsible for the proper procedure and positive outcome of an open heart operation. But what about a gardener? Surely you can also expect him to feel responsibility for the park he has under his care? Encouraging ownership in your team or your organisation means to give people, regardless of their position or salary scale, the responsibility to do their job as well as possible.

But the question remains whether they will also take this responsibility. There are a few preconditions for this to happen, and they are the focus of this article.

Preconditions for stimulating ownership

As stated in the introduction, there are individual differences between the levels of agency people exhibit. That would suggest that feeling ownership and acting upon it is a personal matter. But sometimes you see someone taking on a similar position at another company, and suddenly they seem to exhibit much more ownership. This would suggest that the environment in which someone works is hugely influential to their level of ownership, too. In some organisations, ownership appears to be much more widely distributed than in others; this also indicates the influence of the working environment. Personally, I love these environments in which people show ownership. Conversely, I think it’s a shame when people have to waste their time doing meaningless tasks or work that doesn’t give them energy.

20 years of research

And so I started to wonder, How can you encourage ownership? What would that require from people themselves, what would it require from the organisation? It should not be too hard to distil a few essential ingredients, or preconditions for promoting ownership. And so that’s what I set out to do. Based on many job-interviews and conversations with people about ownership and on more than 20 years of experience as a trainer/coach and as an entrepreneur, I have formulated seven essential preconditions for ownership to flourish in.

Intrinsic and Contextual conditions for promoting Ownership

Three of these are what I call ‘intrinsic’ conditions; they are primarily situated within the employee him- or herself. The other four are ‘contextual’ conditions; their fulfilment is the responsibility of the organisation in which employees work. Below, the seven conditions are presented visually.

afbeelding over ownership eigenaarschap

First, I will address the three intrinsic preconditions.

Ownership and three intrinsic preconditions

Precondition 1: Desire

In his book The Craftsman, sociologist Richard Sennett beautifully describes how people have an enduring, basic human tendency: the desire to work well for the sake of the work itself. For example, I like writing articles and books because of the actions and processes involved. I don’t need a manager to get me started. It’s just great work. I also get this satisfaction from something as basic as chopping wood; physical work with a visible result. My wife doesn’t have to nudge me; I really enjoy working towards a beautiful pile of freshly chopped wood.

Afbeelding over ownership

“I just like it”

People in organisations readily show more ownership if they want to do the work for the sake of the work itself. As a manager, your job is to keep an eye out for whatever intrinsically motivates people. What sort of tasks do they enjoy doing? Can you provide more of it?

Precondition 2: Ability

The second prerequisite is about having sufficient skills and about self-confidence. When you start a task, you have to feel that you can manage the work. This is relative to your own skills, but this also depends on your self-confidence to approach novel tasks.

“I can do this”

I have seen many people who basically had all the skills, but who lacked self-confidence. They felt they were not ready, that they were not yet good enough, or had other hindering thoughts that prevented them from just throwing themselves into an adventure with dedication. They were too shy to take responsibility.

Precondition 3: Purpose

This precondition for ownership is about someone’s desire to be meaningful, to add value to the people and the world around them. If I can chop wood all day, but I live somewhere hot where firewood is not required, I would still feel less agency and ownership than if I was in a cottage in the north of Sweden. Despite the other preconditions being fulfilled, it will all feel a bit pointless. Understanding the meaning of what they do, and sharing a purpose, gets people to show ownership a lot easier. In many a complex organisation, it is often difficult to have a clear idea of that purpose.

“I want to make a difference”

People show much more ownership if they see before them how the work they do makes a positive difference to others. Also, if you feel a little under the weather but you know that you’ll get your colleagues in trouble if you stay home, you will be more likely to come. If, on the other hand, no one even notices when you are away for a week (which happens much more often than you’d like to know!) then an important motivation to take responsibility will be missing. You want your work, and the work environment, to be valuable and meaningful.

Now, I will address the four contextual preconditions fo stimulating ownership

contextual preconditions for stimulating ownership

Precondition 4: Influence

If someone wants to take care of some task or goal, to value and to own it, they must be able to influence all that is necessary to achieve this – and to do it at their own discretion. Only then can you, as a manager, stimulate agency and ownership. It can be very frustrating if, say, an employee is allowed to lead a project, but has to ask permission for each expense because they do not control their own budget. Unfortunately, this is a very common occurrence.

In the Dutch military, it sometimes happens that soldiers on deployment bring their own equipment. And a few years ago, when Dutch police were still issued very heavy body armour, some police officers put on their own, new, lighter but equally safe material. This may sound strange, but large organisations are often slow to act upon the latest developments.

“let me do it my way”

Many people who leave their organisation to start as freelancers do this partly because they are now free to do their work at their own discretion, and to use any tools they see fit. They have no bosses, no procedures that they have to adhere to. As long as they deliver the desired result, they have the freedom – and the responsibility comes with it automatically.

Precondition 5: Transparency

Nothing is more frustrating than working hard to achieve a goal, and then to be refuted with non-rational, elusive arguments. And yet, this happens all too often; especially in organisations where politics and personal interests are more important than the collective interest. If ‘position power’ is valued more than expertise, if there are unfair advantages and honest craftsmanship does not guide decision-making, it’s very hard to take on any sort of responsibility.

“Let’s see eye to eye’

A transparent work environment, guided by rational and fair decision making, is therefore a crucial condition for stimulating ownership among employees.

Precondition 6: Overview

Even if your business is transparent and people feel intrinsically empowered, it may still be that people take on little ownership because they simply cannot grasp the overall picture. If it is unclear to them how their work relates to that of their colleagues and other departments, or to the outcome of the company as a whole, frustration can still arise.

“I get where all this fits in’

You can see this happening most clearly if a new ICT system is introduced. Any project manager knows this will cause problems. By talking about this in advance with the employees involved and managing expectations, you prevent people from becoming frustrated at the time of the actual introduction. They are aware of the whys and hows, they accept everyone will have have to go through some start-up messiness, and they will understand how the new system will make their own, and everybody else’s work better.

Communication is key here: the better you inform and involve each person in advance, the lower the chance of negative attitudes. Ideally, everyone will get involved to detect the latest bugs in the new system. Communication is often key to ensure that people have an overview of the bigger picture. Without it, people may come to feel the organisation is just an inhibiting factor standing between a professional and his or her expertise. Any change in the organisation will be met with indifference. And indifference is the exact opposite of ownership.

Precondition 7: Trust

You may be happy to do your work and share its purpose; you may have the confidence and skills, and understand how it all fits together. You may even work in a transparent environment; but transparency can still not be enough. ‘My way or the highway’ leaves nothing to the imagination, but it doesn’t speak of a trusting relationship. For you to feel true agency and ownership in your work, you must feel that your job is really your own.

I just know they trust me to do the right thing

Executives and management play an important role in this. If they ask a team member to take on a task or goal, they should then no longer interfere with it. And that can be quite a challenge, especially if a manager is held responsible for the outcomes.

Ownership and the art of letting go

Here, the art of letting go plays a very important role. You can only let go completely, there’s no halfway point. Trust and control are interrelated, but they are certainly not the same thing. If you trust someone, you expect them to tell you when things are about to go wrong. Constantly checking if they are doing ‘the right thing’ isn’t helping. You may be held accountable for outcomes, but that doesn’t mean you should be controlling processes. Any self-respecting professional will tell you if a process goes off course, but only if they themselves can control its workings.

Driving ownership in your organisation

Task ownership is a beautiful thing. Motivated, enthusiastic professionals, acting as team players who take their individual responsibility to contribute to the collective interest. It may sound to good to be true. But encouraging ownership is actually not that hard – although it does require a change in your ‘management mindset’.

Additionally, the ambition to encourage ownership can lead to providing employees with new job descriptions, changing up departments – or even dispense with job descriptions completely. A renewed focus on ownership may free up a lot of energy that was held back by an un-trusting, overly controlling organisation. Conversely, sometimes it may show that some people don’t fit the working environment any more, or that different skill sets are required.

Start the conversation

You can begin with small steps and start talks with your team. Below, I have listed some example questions. In this way, you will get an idea of what is going well or what may need  improvement. You will certainly find some themes that you personally can take responsibility for…

  • What is important to you in your work?
  • Which elements do you think you can handle, and which may possibly be out of your grasp?
  • What value would you want to add in our organisation?
  • How do you want to make a difference?
  • What tasks, goals, responsibilities do you like to take on?
  • Do you feel you are trusted to do the work well?
  • Is the organisation helpful to the way you practice your profession?

Do you want to take on the challenge?

We offer many training courses and management development programs to address the theme of ownership. Furthermore, in cooperation with Jump Serious Games, we offer various serious games to encourage ownership and agency with individual employees and teams. Watch serious games here.

afbeelding van het boek over eigenaarschap

This article is based on Chapter 2 of my Dutch book Wie zorgt dat het goed komt?

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