The term “ownership” is used by leaders and managers most often to describe its absence at a time when it is needed the most, according to them.
The CEO who is reviewing progress of some of the major organisational initiatives that he and his direct reports had agreed to drive and implement is anguished to find that little progress has been made and his team members seem to be giving him all kinds of reasons for their not doing anything about it.
Talk to the CEO and he would say “So, why don’t they take ownership?”
When you listen to the CEO’s passionate plea, you are tempted to conclude that employees in general shirk responsibility and by nature have a low sense of ownership. Unfortunately the truth lies elsewhere.
But what is ownership? A natural calamity like floods in any of our cities in a good place to witness ownership or the lack of it.
As soon as a city is gripped with floods, there are a sea voices trying to assign blame – is it the Government, the local authorities, the builders, the citizens who choose to buy or build houses in those areas, the businesses which did not act like good citizens and do something?
As this happens, you will also find a whole sea of people who are moved to act – someone is setting up a whatsapp group to share information, someone supplying foods, someone who is donating, someone who is volunteering to ferry people to safe places.
Cut back to organizations. Ownership is almost always evident in moments of crisis. There are no SOPs, no job descriptions, no departmental boundaries, no hierarchies. On the other hand, the most important things get done by everyone coming together? How?
Lets now get specific and try and define ownership behaviours or the lack of it.
People who take ownership direct all their efforts and actions to achieve results. They can be completely relied upon to get anything done. They go beyond their role, exert extra efforts and do “whatever” needs to be done to get things done. They worry not only about things in their work area but also about the results that are finally necessary. They are conscious of consequences and are concerned about resources. Phrases like “I have done my best”, “this is not my job”, “what can I do”, “don’t ask me”, “it’s not my problem” are not part of their lexicon.
Contraindicators of ownership
People who do not take ownership typically feel victims of circumstances around them. They will always lament about how they were let down by the other person and can therefore not take any responsibility. The typical sales person will tell you how the operations folks cannot be trusted to fulfill their orders or delivery good quality and for that reason cannot achieve the numbers. The typical Quality head will lament about the lack of a quality culture in the company and how the “numbers focus” is making his job impossible and that he therefore cannot take responsibility for quality.
Responsibility is shared and those who take ownership take responsibility in a boundary less manner.
Do we have a crisis of ownership?
Many believe that we have a crisis of ownership in the corporate world or even in civic life.
While I do see some problems, I must confess that the general level of ownership today is far higher than what we have seen in the past. We are able to rely on one another to get things done far better today than ever before. We are far more results focused and feel like victims to circumstances a lot less.
However, given the complexities of the world on one side and the far higher levels of empowerment (in terms of know how, resources, awareness, rewards and so on) on the other side, we could do much better. Given all that we do have today, employees are certainly not taking as much ownership as they should and they can. Why so?
A certain kind of leadership fosters ownership
There is a huge body of research and empirical evidence suggesting that a certain kind of leadership style contributes to creating strong enabling conditions for high ownership. In other words, the problem of poor ownership is the result of poor leadership. Lets get specific here.
Show them the big picture and include them
It seems easiest to hire people with the promise of a job, a brand and big rewards. Showing them the big picture seems the hardest and very few leaders have figured this out.
While leaders do a great job of setting measurable goals, not many do well in inspiring people to buy into these goals. When employees see the big picture, they extend themselves and take ownership. For the thousands of start-ups, as they cross the magic 50 employee count, the “big picture” begins to become hazy. The pursuit of “scale” and “hiring more people” keeps leaders so busy that they forget that the real keys to scale is the “ability of every employees to continue to see the same big picture”. As businesses “”pivot”, the big picture changes and we grossly underestimate the need to do this.
Not being able to see the big picture robs ownership. Think of the natural calamity – the big picture is clear. In my work with teams in early start up and crisis situations, I have seen a very high level of ownership simply because the big picture is very clear – they must survive and succeed.
On the other hand, I have seen complete lack of ownership in large, well established and successful organisations because very few can see the big picture or even if they can, only very few buy into it. With tightly defined verticals, high emphasis on political savvy and excessive emphasis on financial rewards, they push individuals to “do their bit” and not take ownership.
I must clarify that when I say “show the big picture” I am not referring to the vision statements displayed in the office lobby.
Showing the big picture is all about communication, inspiration and inclusion. What is easily understood in the early days becomes a problem as organisations grow in size. Big picture is also contextual. For a front-line retail clerk, big picture is being able to see the connection between his or her daily work duties and repeat customers. I say this because leaders are often unable to see the various shades of big picture and attempt to fix all of this through broad spectrum antibiotics like town hall meetings, newsletters and group mails.
Assumptions about people
Do leaders assume that their employees want to take ownership, want to do a good job, want to be self directed? Or do they assume that they will slack off, will shirk work and need to be closely monitored and micromanaged?
Our assumptions shape our actions, whatever our intentions might be.
Handling failures and genuine appreciation
How leaders handle failures will tell us a lot about whether employees will “go out of the way”.
I am improvising on what Mark Twain once said about the cat and the hot stove.
“We should be careful to help employees get out of a difficult experience only the wisdom that is in it and stop there lest we lead them to behave like the cat that sits down on a hot stove lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove lid again and that is well but also she will never sit down on a cold one anymore.”
Of course, genuine appreciation of a spontaneous nature also is crucial. I am not talking about what you ask HR to do but what the leader does with humility, setting aside their vanity about exacting standards.
Well, a discussion about ownership is not complete without talking about parenting. There is a general view that kids today do not take as much ownership especially at home (just helping around on a variety of things) as their parents did when they were young. Well, it might be true in many cases but the origin may need to traced back to our parenting styles!