In our forthcoming book on culture, my colleague, Shawn Moon, and I pose the question.
“Who washes a rental car?”
Our answer: “No one.”
Why? “Renters don’t own rental cars.”
As this idea settles in on you, allow me to expand a bit on the concept of ownership. In doing so, I’m going to argue the following:
Don’t give your employees another program in hopes of increasing engagement, give them something to own!
Our typical concept of ownership, especially in the Western world, stems from how society sees ownership. Owning something is protected by the legal structure and comes with a particular set of rights. We therefore think in terms of owning a house, a car, furniture, and even a business.
In this discussion, I’m not referring to this type of ownership. True, you can offer employees equity in a business, but their are limitations to this approach and the sense of ownership it provides.
Instead of focusing on the legalistic concept of ownership, let’s discuss what business scholars call ‘psychological ownership.’ Psychological ownership is not necessarily recognized by the legal system, but it is grounded in the individual who holds the ‘ownership’ feeling.
“We conceptually define psychological ownership as that state where an individual feels as though the target of ownership or a piece of that target is ‘theirs’ (i.e., it is MINE!).” – Pierce, Kostova, Dirks
Some of you may be interested in reading the details of Pierce, Kostova, and Dirks research on the topic. Simply click here to do that.
Psychological Ownership in Action
I recently had a chance to see the power of this type ownership in action.
In my role at Vanderbilt University, I’m fortunate to work with students in a number of situations both in and out of the classroom. About a year ago, Tom Carroll asked if I would be willing to serve as an advisor to a group called Students Consulting for Non-Profit Organizations (SCNO).
SCNO was formed by students and is run by students. It isn’t a business. Students don’t have an equity stake in it. Revenue is not generated, but in every way possible, the students own it.
Each year SCNO sends out a campus-wide invitation offering undergraduate students a chance to apply to be a member. Membership is selective. Selectees are expected to devote their limited free time to help one of a select group of non-profits solve a business problem. Problems include issues such as technological advancements, operational improvements, or volunteer and fund raising support.
These students give a tremendous amount of effort to the program. In addition to their coursework, they collectively spend hundreds of hours each year working on real business problems for real clients.
After the completion of the final SCNO event for the year hosted by the group’s president, E. B. Armstrong, I took time to reflect on what I learned. By allowing the students to ‘own’ their project, solutions, clients, and work, I saw six amazing takeaways.
- Overcome obstacles: Like any project team, the students ran into obstacles. Everything from scheduling conflicts to ‘scope creep’ emerged throughout the course of their efforts. Since they owned the projects, they also owned dealing with the obstacles. Their creativity emerged and allowed them to go around, move out of the way, or tackle any obstacles that hindered progress.
- Grow personally: The results delivered were a function of individual contributions to the team goal. While the team grew collectively, team members grew individually. Allowing them to own the work led to this individual growth.
- Find purpose: As I worked with the students over the course of the project, I found that some discovered a passion for consulting. Others learned that it wasn’t the right fit and a different career path would be more fulfilling. Many found working with non-profits invigorating. I’m sure some learned differently. The point is owning the work allow them to explore at a deeper level and find purpose along the way.
- Share burden: Let’s not sugarcoat the situation. I’ve worked with enough teams to know that burdens aren’t always equally shared. At times one person carries the weight of the project on her shoulders and others evade most responsibility. That said, my work with the teams revealed an amazing amount of burden sharing. Because they had many other responsibilities on their plates and collectively owned the work, the vast majority stepped up and willingly shared the burden.
- Deliver results: Overcoming obstacles, sharing burdens, and the like are all good things, but in the end, the teams had to deliver results. And, they did. Why? They owned them. There was no handing off to another person to finish the work, each team member stood up in front of the clients and owned the results of the team’s efforts.
- Build pride: As I watched the students present to their clients, I saw people with their heads held high. They made it happen. They owned it. In turn, they had a sense of pride in what the accomplished. Being prideful might be a bad at times, but being proud of what the group accomplished for their clients is a positive.
What about you and your people?
I fully recognize that your situation might be very different than the example I provided. You are likely not working with students who volunteered and were hand selected to participate in a group. You may work with people who you ‘inherited’ and seem not to volunteer for anything.
The situation may be different, but the concept of ownership is still very applicable. I encourage you not to dismiss the idea out of hand.
I encourage you to look for ways to increase ownership among your team members. To that end, I offer a few questions to consider about how well you are transferring ownership to your people:
- Do you give guidance and suggestions to your people, but allow them to own it? Or, do you step in and direct or takeover?
- Do you look at the risks associated with failing on a task and work with your people to determine who owns what? Or, do you assume they can’t do it?
- Have you fallen into the trap where you feel you are too busy or too important to invest the time needed to let them own it? Or, do you make the investment now to reap benefits in the long-run?
Here’s your challenge. Find one way this week to allow a team member or colleague to own something.