Lack of ownership, lack of accountability, not taking responsibility… kids these days. Not just kids, but everyone apparently. Whether you’re a first-time supervisor or a CEO, one-in-two managers isn’t very good at holding their team or others accountable.
Before we dig into ways to fix this, let’s untangle these terms a bit. Because although they’re interrelated, we believe they are different things.
What does it mean if an employee isn’t taking ownership?
We take ownership when we believe that taking action is not someone else’s responsibility. It’s the opposite of passing the buck and making excuses. When you own a target, you do everything you can to achieve it. In a broader sense, it’s thinking outside the scope of your job and taking initiative to do the right thing for the business as whole. Taking ownership is taking the initiative to do the right thing. You see a problem – and even if it’s not yours – you step in to be part of the solution.
A more formal definition from a research review on Psychological ownership (PO): PO can be an important tool for organizations to encourage productivity and certain desirable employee behaviours. In organizational literature, PO is the sense of ownership over a “target”: not only physical objects, but a concept, a job, or the whole organization. It can express itself in positive ways, such as higher motivation; but it also has potentially negative effects, such as territoriality or not delegating effectively.
What’s it mean if an employee isn’t accountable?
When you say “I’ve got this”, accountability means you will deliver as promised . On-time, within budget, etc. It also means you’re forthcoming when you’re going to fall short because you recognize that other team members are dependant on the results of your work. So open, proactive communication to keep team members informed of the status of your commitments is an important aspect of being accountable.
High-Trust = High-Performance
Taking ownership tells others – “You can trust me to take initiative and do the right thing.”
Being accountable tells others – “You can trust me to do what I say I’m going to do.”
Trust is confidence that your teammates are working towards the same objectives you are. That they’re doing this with diligence and professionalism. If you don’t trust your teammates, you spend time and energy following up and managing details you shouldn’t be. Having trust in the workplace tells others – “I believe in you. I believe you’ll do the right thing and I believe you’ll do what you say you’re going to do.”
How to help employees take ownership over their work
The ability to produce a desired or intended result and is linked to the desire for control
The satisfaction of changing an outcome through one’s own actions is found even in children (Furby, 1991 in Avey et al., 2009). The sense of efficacy can both foster a sense of ownership, and come from it: when an individual owns something, he or she is able to change or manipulate it (Pierce et al., 2001), further strengthening the feeling of ownership of a target where the person has invested effort. Thus, this innate desire to affect outcomes combines with the ability to influence a task, project, or organization to foster a feeling of ownership. Avey et al. refer to this root as “self-efficacy” by linking it explicitly to the individual psychology of efficacy, which they explain as: “I need to do this task, I can do it, and I therefore own the responsibility for achieving success” (2009: 177).
People identify themselves through the things over which they feel ownership. A racing car driver may define himself by the fact that he drives cars (Avey et al., 2009). Over time, this can lead to a sense of ownership over the cars even if he does not personally own them. This feeling of selfidentity means that the car and his sense of self are tied up together, ensuring that he works hard to keep the cars in top form and makes recommendations to optimise them; but he may also be resistant to sharing responsibility over them with others and could become territorial. In addition to objects, this type of self-identity can be felt toward a purpose, job, team, or organization (Rousseau, 1998 in Avey et al., 2009).
The desire to belong is an essential part of being human, and one that can be met through ownership. If an individual feels a sense of belonging at an organization or in a job role, he or she is thus more likely to develop PO (Pierce et al., 2001). This can be a reinforcing cycle in which the feeling of ownership helps solidify the sense of having a home or place. If this human need to belong is met by the organization, it can intensify the employee’s relationship with the organization.
Linked to the desire for efficacy, achieving control over a concept, object or job can lead to a feeling of ownership because of the ability to change the direction or outcome of the activity (Pierce et al., 2001). Having autonomy, high levels of responsibility and the ability to influence strategy, a project, job design, etc. can help foster PO for this reason (Pierce et al., 2001). The target of PO is not therefore necessarily a concrete object or physical space, but can also be a concept, a role within the organization, or the organization itself.
Investing in the self
Investing the self in the target through time, energy, and interest is a strong way to lead to PO. Pierce et al. (2001) draw from 17th century philosopher John Locke’s idea that people feel that they own their labour and the things that they produce or create. Even if an organization maintains legal ownership over intellectual property, for example, if an individual spends significant time on a product, team, job, etc., then PO is likely to develop (Pierce et al., 2001). Similarly, building an intimate knowledge of the target through long association or personal interest can create a situation in which the individual feels a “fusion” with it (Beaglehole, 1932 via Pierce et al., 2001). By knowing the target extremely well, whether it is a project or the entire organization, the individual may feel ownership and assume certain rights and responsibilities.
Intimate knowledge of the target
Finally, accountability is described as both a path to PO and a result of it. Avey et al. (2009) contend the former: that it is “the implicit or explicit expectation that one may be called upon to justify one’s actions to other (Lerner & Tetlock, 1999: 255 via Avey et al., 2009: 177). They believe that PO manifests when individuals feel that they can be held accountable for the target of ownership and that they have the right to keep others accountable for their actions around it (Avey et al., 2009: 177). In the organizational context, a manager who is responsible for the success of a project will feel personally accountable for the outcome, but will also expect and require the participation and accountability of colleagues. By feeling this type of personal and managerial responsibility for the task, a sense of ownership for the outcome of the project can easily develop.
Pierce et al. (2001), on the other hand, see this feeling of accountability and, as a result, responsibility as a result of PO rather than a driver of it. When an individual feels ownership, it not only enhances his or her sense of accountability and responsibility but also perceived rights: they refer to this dual sense of accountability as the “expected rights and presumed responsibilities” associated with ownership, both real and perceived (2001: 2000). This has implications for management and governance of organizations since employees who feel PO may in turn require a stronger role in decisions affecting the target; managers who seek to increase PO should be aware that it comes with reciprocal and mutual responsibilities. For example, employees who have invested themselves in an idea or project may both wish to continue to contribute, which could be addressed through increasing employee voice and involvement in the decision making process.
1 Make ’em owners – literally
According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, “…firms with employee ownership tend on average to match or exceed the performance of other similar firms.”
So that’s one way to help.
2 Help them see the big picture
What’s the opposite of giving someone a sense that they own something? Cutting them out of something. No one likes owning something they don’t have visibility to or don’t have influence over. You can’t on one hand tell someone they own customer experience, but then not give them the tools and processes to have visibility into all the ways a customer is being communicated with. Or not have some way to influence how customers are being communicated with. A clear path to making someone feel disconnected from owning customer experience is when activities start happening that influence customer experience, but they had no idea this was happening.
Employees who feel Psychological Ownership may in turn require a stronger role in decisions affecting the target; managers who seek to increase PO should be aware that it comes with reciprocal and mutual responsibilities
4 Don’t micromanage
Micromanaging creates a negative cycle where taking initiative is punished because how the task was completed, or the particulars of the result are criticized. It teaches employees that they should seek guidance and check-in often to ensure they are on the right track.
It’s hard to take ownership over someone else’s recipe/playbook when things are already too narrowly defined. Problem solving is fun, and creating some space for people to use other areas of their brain is more engaging than just executing orders.
So when assigning work, set the overarching parameters in a way that leaves enough space to give your staff room for decision-making, problem-solving, and creative-thinking to achieve the outcome.
Lack of clarity and ambiguity
The payoff when employees take ownership
Whether they’re an intern or the CTO, they make decisions with more thought, responsibility, and care. They’re more driven, more motivated, and take more initiative. They approach work with innovation and creativity, and they’re constantly improving and developing, not just going through the motions.