Who washes a rental car?”
Answer: No one.
Why? “Renters don’t own rental cars.”
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 what is commonly referred to as 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 there 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, I was asked to serve as a faculty advisor to an Innovation Garage team in Vanderbilt’s Wond’ry, which is Vanderbilt’s center for innovation.
“Wond’ry is Vanderbilt’s Innovation Center. With a variety of makerspaces, programming, and events, the Wond’ry provides a centralized resource for Vanderbilt students, faculty, and staff to turn ideas into reality.” – Wond’ry
Innovation Garage team members partner with a corporate sponsor and faculty, “to design and develop creative responses to an issue or project identified by the sponsor.” We are currently partnering with RGP, a global consulting firm that provides critical resources to their clients in order to drive transformative change.
This past Tuesday, I sat in the launch meeting for a new Innovation Garage team. I watched as they met each other for the first time, met their corporate sponsors for the semester, and had a chance to interact with myself and Wond’ry leadership. At one point in the kick-off day, a few of last year’s team members came and shared what they accomplished during their own year Innovation Garage experience.
When the Innovation Garage is in full swing, I typically attend 2-3 student meetings per week. The summer provides a hiatus from that routine, so I was excited to catch up with last year’s team members and learn about their summers. But what stuck with me most was watching lasts year’s students share what they accomplished and demonstrate how they ‘owned’ what they worked on over the course of the year.
After the meeting, I took time to reflect on what I learned in that session and with other student-led activities. Here are six amazing takeaways:
#1: 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.
#2: Personal Growth
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.
#3: Find Purpose
As I worked with the students over the course of the project, I found that some discovered a passion for certain aspects of the effort. Owning the work allowed them to explore at a deeper level and find purpose along the way.
#4: Share Burden
Let’s not sugarcoat the situation. We’ve all 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, they stepped up and willingly shared the burden.
#5: 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 corporate sponsor and owned the results of the team’s efforts.
#6: Build Pride
As I watched the students over the course of the year, 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 they accomplished. While being prideful can sometime be negative, being proud of what the team 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 team effort. 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.
Click here for a complimentary pdf tool that is perfect for printing, posting, and sharing. It will help you and your colleagues to remember the 6 engagement benefits.
Patrick Leddin, PhD is a speaker, global leadership consultant, and The Wall Street Journal bestselling author of The Five-Week Leadership Challenge. Patrick is an Associate Professor at Vanderbilt University with a thriving leadership blog and podcast, and 25-years of leadership experience. He offers an unparalleled mix of academic rigor and real-world experience.