Ownership is not an intellectual state, it is a feeling. As such, you can talk about ownership and present the rational reasons why individuals on your team should take ownership until you are blue in the face and very little will happen. To understand some of the techniques that work to actually encourage your team to take ownership, hit the jump.
How does a leader change feelings? Not by saying, "hey, team, we should feel differently!” The part of the brain that feels things works by different rules than the part of the brain that thinks rationally. Both the thinking and feeling brain are closely intertwined but feeling drives thinking, not the other way around. For a very readable detailed examination of why and how this is so, see this book by Antonio Damasio. For right now, though, here are three things you can do to change feelings:
- Use metaphors and analogies – the easiest way to get someone to feel something is to get them thinking about something else that they already have strong feelings for and to "import” those feelings in some small way to the context of work. So, for example, if you want your team to feel responsibility for the outcome of your group’s performance on a certain project, work to get your team to think of itself as a family. Specifically, by increasing the extent to which they feel that their team (or organization) is like a family they "import” some small portion of the emotion they already have about their family – loyalty, willingness to sacrifice, identification with shared success. Once imported, this emotion motivates new behavior in the new context.
- Model and label the behaviors you want – You can’t talk someone into feeling a certain way, but you can model certain behaviors and those behaviors will help them come to the right emotional place. In coaching we sometimes say "the smile drives the happy” – that if we are successful in getting people to "do” the right things they will come to feel the right way as a consequences. Notice, this is different than just trying to persuade them that they should feel a certain way. Instead, we are showing them how to act in very specific ways and then letting that behavior backfill the emotion. A good friend of mine owns a wonderful restaurant told the following story:
"I had just hired a guy as a cook and I watched one day as he went about his tasks getting ready to open for the night. He was out in the dining area and he saw a gum wrapper on the ground, beneath one of the tables. He stopped, dropped to one knee, and picked it up, and then went about his business. He didn’t have to. His job was in the kitchen. But he knew that when a customer sat down to eat a meal, part of the experience would be the dining room and so he took ownership.”
For my friend, he told this story to the rest of the restaurant staff. He labeled the behavior and said, "there. That’s what ownership looks like!” This took something abstract and made it concrete, giving the other workers knowledge of at least one specific behavior that my friend was looking for and looking to reward.
- Make team members think carefully about their own ownership experiences – I don’t use the word "make” much. I prefer "persuade” or "influence.” Sometimes, though, you have to make people do things to get them to do it. At your next or a future staff meeting, communicate to the team that one topic you’ll be discussing is ownership. When the meeting arrives, have each person take out a sheet of paper and write down three things they take pride in owning. It can be their house, their car, their favorite pair of hiking boots (which is mine). Then have them write down a paragraph about how they behave differently toward these things because of their ownership relationship. Finally, lead the group in a discussion of what they wrote down, reinforcing the good examples, and exploring the ones that might not be as compelling. The exercise should take about 30-40 minutes for an average sized staff meeting (6-10 people). The reason this works is because each of your people are being forced to dredge up the feelings of ownership they already have in their lives. They can then draw the connection to what that would feel like in the context of your team.
All of this is important because there is no more important concept in leadership than ownership. Great leaders help their people take ownership of their work, their group, and their organization. This makes the people and the leader more effective and more fulfilled – not a bad day’s work as a leader.