How to get employees to embrace ownership thinking

February 9, 2015 | By Neil Ducoff | 5 Comments

Some owners are happy when employees just do their job well. Get the work done. Follow the rules. Make clients happy. Don’t waste resources. Be on time. Take initiative within the confines of the “employee box”. This “just do your job well” approach is the traditional owner/manager/supervisor/worker hierarchy where people and groups are ranked according to status or authority. Each group or level places people in a “box” with set levels of authority. There’s nothing wrong with this approach and very successful companies have and will continue to emerge from this most traditional approach.

The limitation of the box level approach is that it constrains and contains the creative thinking of people within their designated box. At the worker level, the box is all about output and productivity and very little about creative thinking and decision making to do the work more efficiently. Creative thinking and decision making is reserved for the uppermost boxes that are often the most distant from the work. This approach leaves a vast resource of untapped brain power at the most critical level … where the work is actually being done.

The Kicker: Most owners and leaders want their employees to think and act like owners. They want employees to take ownership in their work, pursue quality, play as a team, do what’s best for the customer, help reduce costs … and live the vision of the company. Only problem is … their “place people in boxes” approach works against them.

Here are some no-compromise leadership strategies to create a culture of ownership thinking:

  • Recycle the boxes: If you want your employees to embrace ownership thinking and take responsibility in the success of the company, then it’s time to collect all of your people boxes and make a trip to the recycling center. FACT: Don’t expect ownership thinking to occur while you keep groups of people (workers, managers, etc.) neatly tucked away in boxes that have, at best, been described as “comfort zones”. You placed them into boxes and only you can allow them the freedom to step out into a brave new world. Some will love the opportunity to exercise their brain, have their voice heard, and to make a difference. Others will cling to the remnants of their once comfy box and need some coaxing and coaching to step out. If you want a culture of ownership thinking, you must first break down the boxes that prevented it in the first place.
  • Upgrade your expectations: This is a tough one for many leaders that have lowered their expectations of employees because the company’s culture got stuck in mediocrity, destroy from within, or even worse, the fiery pit of hell. FACT: Company cultures degrade because the leader allowed it to. Ownership thinking cannot occur when it’s routinely beaten down by the leader’s “finger of blame”. Upgrading your expectations of employees is a process of instilling confidence, trust and believing in the abilities of those you lead. Employees must feel respected and appreciated by leadership in order to have the confidence to step up, speak up and perform up.
  • Clarify “Ownership Thinking”: Telling employees that you want them to “think like an owner” is about as effective as telling them to “do more”. FACT: You need to invest the time, energy and resources to educate employees on what ownership thinking looks like, feels like and performs like. Every company has loyal, capable and trustworthy employees on the team that hold back on decision making simply because, as individuals, they do not “feel” they have the authority to make certain decisions that they “feel” are above their pay grade. It is up to the leadership to clarify the boundaries and limits of ownership thinking. Again, this requires an investment in time, training and coaching.
  • Share the data: I am a huge fan of open-book management … and the open sharing of key performance data. It is the basis of creating a culture of transparency where no one fears hidden agendas, cliques and ego-based leadership. FACT: People do care about the numbers if they understand what the numbers mean – and how they can push the numbers in the right direction. If you want a culture of ownership thinking to lift your company to the next level … share as much information and data as possible so every team members knows and understands the score.
  • Reclaim territories: This is a simple one. FACT: Many people, managers and leaders are highly “territorial” and protect their turf at the expense of others and the company. Ownership thinking brings everyone into the game of winning and converts “territories” into shared common space. If you or members of your leadership team are busy putting up barbed-wire fences and walls to protect their territory … a culture of ownership thinking has little hope of surviving.
  • Set yourself free: You’ll like this one. FACT: A culture where ownership thinking prevails gives leaders a clean and highly manageable plate of responsibilities. Leaders have the time to look and strategize the company’s future down range. More people share the load of growing the company. More and better decisions are being made closer to the work and the problems. In order to set yourself free as a leader, you must lead differently. I simply call the process … No-Compromise Leadership.

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Please share your thoughts with me about today’s Monday Morning Wake-Up. Click below to comment.

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Categories: Information Flow , Leadership , Monday Morning Wake-Up , No-Compromise Leadership , Staff Retention , Teamwork

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  1. Hi Neil,

    Great advice and this new day and age I believe that we need to embrace change if we want to “free” ourselves from menial jobs and micromanaging. We’ve seen that the “same ‘ol way” doesn’t work anymore…

    I only struggle with one thing, the “open book” policy. Don’t you think when we embrace that we offer a inside intel that some people/employees might misinterpret, either because of lack of knowledge/expertise (it takes certain mentality and training to be a manager/owner and be able to read and interpret financial statements) or even to gain knowledge in the business and push their own agendas. I mean, at the end of the day with an open book policy, what do we left as owners…?

    Thank you

  2. Hi Chris,
    Creating transparency and “open book” is a process. It also doesn’t mean throwing open the books. It means teaching employees at all levels what the numbers mean and how they can push them in the right direction. It takes time to create an ownership culture … and it’s every bit of hard work and time.

    As for “what do owners have left?” I struggle with this comment in that it can be interpreted as “withholding information” at the expense of employees. That seeds trust issues of some degree.

    Personally, I have never had an issue sharing financials with my staff. They appreciate it. They fight for profit. But first I had to teach them what all the numbers meant.

    It’s all about the culture you want to build.

    Thanks for posting your comment,


  3. Hi Niel,

    Great subject. I do try to do this, but I struggle. I am passionate about the numbers and our goals. I do share some of the numbers, lots of them actually. My biggest obstacle is igniting the fire in the team, the love for the numbers and achieving them.

    Eating the elephant, one bite at a time,


  4. Hi Neil,
    Thank you for your reply. Transparency is imperative if we want to create an ownership culture in our businesses, I agree 100% and the trust issues you mentioned, unfortunately, it is engraved in to some of us from early on, I am trying hard to change that…

    Thank you

  5. Hi Chris,
    I hear ya. I all the years I have been working with business owners, I have seen two modes of thinking; One that is “closed” and never discusses money or financial matters … and another that is “Open” about money and finances … within reason. There are of course varying degrees in between.

    My friend and mentor is Jack Stack who lead the charge on bringing Open-Book management into mainstream business. I highly recommend reading his book, The Great Game of Business. It’s a great story and lesson on getting employees engaged in the financial reality of the company can achieve extraordinary results. The book was named one of the top 100 business books of all time.



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