Own It – fostering healthy work cultures that encourage loyalty

Employees laughing and smiling

To foster real connection and belonging within an organization, employees need genuine ownership over what they are doing — thankfully, there is more than one way to make that happen.

Human beings have a deep need for ownership. Not just in the sense of owning possessions but in that sense of extended identity and connection with purpose. It can be a high school locker or a first apartment we “make our own” by infusing it with our sensibilities and with objects that have meaning for us. Or it can be a part in a performance, an idea raised at a meeting, a project we took on; not things, yet we feel a sense of ownership.

That sense of ownership is central to organizational values like purpose, engagement and accountability.

Where we feel no ownership of places or work, those other values will be absent.

Purpose, Belonging and Ownership

Healthy organizational culture requires three elements: psychological safety, a sense of purpose and a sense of belonging (adapted from Dan Coyle’s The Culture Code).

Being able to point to something we own in an organization — a process, a part in the creation of a product or service — makes purpose and belonging tangible.

We may think of belonging as one way: we belong to an organization.

For real connection, the organization also has to belong to us. We say “That’s my team.” Without that sense, we feel like a ghost in the machine. It is well-documented that this disconnect kills engagement and creates a breeding ground for phenomena like vandalism and employee theft.

When we cannot find any trace of ourselves in the environment we go to school in or work in, it is tough to feel like we belong in any meaningful sense. We feel temporary and replaceable. When it goes that far, we are disconnected from any sense of purpose or belonging, but, even worse, the foundation of psychological safety becomes eroded.

It is hard to feel safe when we feel nothing in a place that is ours.

Ownership and Initiative

I am often asked by employers why employees don’t show more initiative. “Those millennials” are a particular target in this line of questioning.

“Why do I always have to think for them? Where’s their initiative?”

My answer is always another question: “How much ownership do they have?”

Ownership and initiative are two sides of the same pancake.

To ask for initiative and its companion, accountability, for something employees have no ownership of is a recipe for failure. We must “own” what we are asked to be accountable for. When we feel like a bit of ourselves is in our space and our work, we become accountable.

If a manager wants autonomy and accountability, they must also delegate ownership.

Flavours of Ownership

Employers get hung up on the word ownership. The assumption is that we are talking about literal ownership — shares in the company. But there are many other forms of ownership, and an effective leader manages with the full set.

Task level — The most basic form of ownership. When the management of even a basic task is handed over to those who do the work without strings or micro-management, ownership is increased, and purpose and accountability with it.

Role level — An accounts payable clerk or a project manager should feel full ownership of processes, but more importantly of outcomes. This level of ownership requires careful articulation to ensure common understanding of the span of control and expected outcomes.

Management — When we ask someone to lead or coach a team of people in collaboratively creating value, the “math” of ownership becomes a lot more complex. Loyalties, transparency, expectations and effective communication all have to be considered.

Profit sharing — This is one of the “skin in the game” forms of ownership. The mechanics of profit-sharing are complex and beyond the scope of this article. But done right, profit-sharing adds material ownership to the psychological ownership of the other levels.

Shares — These are the most literal form of ownership. Business owners can become squeamish when this form of ownership comes up. They are afraid of a loss of control, and of the risk of betrayals and broken relationships. Bad things can happen but far less often than you would think. Two protections can minimize risk:

  •  Crystal clarity of expectations and boundaries.
  •  A thoughtful and professionally prepared shareholder’s agreement.

Which of these levels of ownership is right for you? Unsurprisingly, the answer is “It depends.”

Four questions need to be answered:

Are you ready? The courage to let go and the patience to facilitate the success of others as they move to “own” a part of the process, cannot be underestimated.

Is there alignment? To get the highest return, there must be alignment between the employee, the organization, its values and the forms of ownership being considered.

Are we setting up owners for success? Success requires clarity of expectations around results, standardized processes, appropriate learning and development support.

Is the motivation clear? Ownership should not be used just as a reward. Shifting ownership in an organization should be undertaken to elevate autonomy and accountability, and to deepen safety, purpose and belonging.

Ownership in all of its forms plays a transformative role in the life of an organization. It does require courage, trust and careful design.

Clemens Rettich is a business consultant with Grant Thornton LLP. He has an MBA from Royal Roads University and has spent 25 years practising the art of management.