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How to Create an Ownership Mentality Within Your Team

Accountability and ownership are similar but not the same. Here's why it matters.

By Gustavo Razzetti

May 12, 2022

Don't just promote accountability – build a culture where people pick up the trash.

Organizations have an accountability crisis, according to the Workplace Accountability Study. Leaders know that accountability is vital for success. However, they struggle to build a culture of ownership within their teams. 82% of respondents say they have limited to no ability to hold others accountable – they either try but fail or avoid it altogether.

Employees don't have a good relationship with accountability either. Accountability systems fail to motivate them. Most people think that feedback occurs only when things go wrong. A study by Gallup found that only 14% of employees feel their performance is managed in a way that inspires them to take more responsibility.

When accountability is absent, people don't take obligations seriously. Over one-third see due dates (or "by-whens") as real commitments. A vast majority aren't sure what their company is trying to achieve and one-third feel that priorities frequently change, creating confusion.

Accountability is difficult to achieve, yet attainable. One of the problems I observe in consulting organizations is that executives think they can impose a sense of responsibility on others. Instead, I advise them to focus on creating a culture of ownership – if you want people to feel responsible, let them own their work.

The Differences Between Accountability and Ownership

We’re living in a metrics-obsessed world and organizations are using a staggering number of metrics. However, they struggle to create accountability systems that actually work.

PartnerHero CEO Shervin Talieh wrote on Forbes, "How we approach metrics has remained largely unchanged. Our mindset around metrics and the way we measure outputs are topics conspicuously missing in most discussions about the future of work."

As Talieh explains, there's a dangerous side to being metrics-obsessed: "This creates organizational rigidity and establishes that when the target is hit, people can take their foot off the gas. Simply put, it stops the cycle of continuous improvement."

Often leaders focus on monthly and quarterly results, promoting short-term thinking rather than true accountability. Thus, people care more about hitting the metric of the month than about doing the right thing.

Take the idea of tying CEO's bonuses to stock price. It definitely drives stock increase, but at what price? By focusing on selfish metrics, companies pay a long-term price – employees and the community also suffer the consequences.

This doesn't mean you should stop using metrics, but instead focus on building a culture of ownership. Reward the behavior that will help you achieve your key performance indicators.

How do you promote an ownership mentality within your team?

Accountability and ownership go hand in hand but are two different things.

Accountability is to be held responsible for fulfilling your duties and responsibilities. It requires answers and has consequences. Accountability is an external process defined by others. Someone – the organization or your manager – will hold you accountable by providing goals and measuring progress.

However, a sense of ownership is not something that you can impose. It's intrinsic rather than extrinsic, just like motivation. People (not you) choose what drives them. The good news is that when team members feel ownership, they don't just care about achieving the goals: they go the extra mile.

In healthy cultures, people have a strong sense of ownership. They don't need external pressure to achieve lofty goals. No one is waiting for someone else to do something – or to tell them to do something.

Where ownership is the motivation, accountability is taking responsibility for the outcome.

Taking ownership of a project doesn't mean you own it – it means you care about your role and the overall outcome. Taking ownership is a commitment. You feel responsible to yourself, not just others.

A culture that lacks ownership is easy to spot, usually manifesting in:

Silos across teams: When people focus on small pieces or don't do something because it's not their job.

Bystander effect: Everybody sees the trash, but no one cares to pick it up (more on this later).

Do as I say, not as I do: Managers expect people to operate in a certain way but then act as if rules don’t apply to themselves.

Ownership-driven employees take the initiative – they commit to tasks as they see them arise and don't need to be told what to do.

Why Psychological Ownership Matters for Your Team

Accountability is doing what's rewarded or measured; ownership is taking good care of your work and responsibilities.

People understand what they are accountable for – consequences for underperformance are often clear. However, being held to account causes anxiety. A recent neuroscientific study revealed that we respond to being rated with a sense of being threatened — we feel unsafe when someone puts us in a box in this way.

Accountability systems are the formal and informal ways that leaders talk about, assess, and reinforce the contributions of team members. They include everything from annual performance appraisals and routine check-ins to measuring progress toward goals and tracking project milestones.

Ownership inspires people to go above and beyond. It's a state of mind in which you feel in charge. Not only do you have the motivation, agency, and willingness to step up – you will also do whatever it takes to achieve the goals.

Psychological ownership is the experience of being psychologically tied to something, creating a powerful emotional connection. As behavioral scientist Francesca Gino wrote, "The state of psychological ownership is not only cognitive but also affective: simply by calling an entity — whether an object, another person, or a job — 'mine' suggests that we have an emotional connection to it."

Building a culture of ownership is the result of multiple elements:

  • Challenging work and problems to solve
  • Meaningful goals with a clear purpose
  • Autonomy to decide how to achieve goals
  • Connection to the team, job, and organization
  • Opportunities to grow as a result of going above and beyond
  • Feeling appreciated by colleagues and leaders

Research by Perce et al. uncovered three roots that contribute to psychological ownership: efficacy, self-identity, and belonging.

Efficacy is the ability to produce a result – the satisfaction of creating an outcome based on one's actions. Self-identity results from what we feel we own: if you love your job, you attach your identity to it. Self-identification can be felt toward a purpose, team, job, or company. Finally, belonging is a fundamental part of being human, as we are social animals who need to be connected to others to thrive.

For an employee, psychological ownership is not always necessary for work but definitely enhances it. A study by the University of Minnesota Duluth found that psychological ownership is associated with job satisfaction, commitment to the organization, and performance.

The same study uncovered that accountability and responsibility result from psychological ownership rather than drive it. When we feel ownership, we expect accountability from ourselves and others.

Accountability is the path to psychological ownership.

A manager responsible for the success of a project will feel personally accountable for the outcome but will also expect participation and accountability from team members. By feeling this type of personal and managerial responsibility, a sense of ownership for the outcome quickly develops.

Interestingly enough, according to research by David McConville, formal ownership rights (such as stock options or profit-sharing schemes) don't necessarily increase psychological ownership and productivity.

Ownership is not about making people feel like owners but that they own their work.

How to Build a Culture of Ownership

Focus on the why

Often leaders are so obsessed with creating alignment around goals and metrics that they lose perspective – they focus on the tree, not the forest. While ensuring team members know 'what' they need to achieve is vital, it's still more important that they understand the 'why.'

Rather than focus on the outcome, emphasize the impact you’re looking for. Creating a culture of constant improvement is more important than creating more business leads. Instead of "We need to increase the number of clients by X," try, "We want to provide such a high-quality service that clients will not want to do business with other companies than ours."

Don't just tell your team what they need to achieve – be absolutely certain they get the why. Define what success would look like and let people decide how to achieve it.

Pick up the trash

In most companies, people ignore the trash on the floor, leaving it for someone else to pick up. At Netflix, picking up the trash is a metaphor for taking care of problems, small and large. The company doesn't have a rule to enforce it but rather promotes a sense of ownership. Picking up the trash is a habit built naturally to prevent the "that's not my job" excuse.

Encourage discipline, not rules.

Netflix provides employees with lots of freedom, power, and information to make decisions. In turn, it generates a sense of ownership and self-discipline. To avoid controlling rules, Netflix trusts that employees have its best interests at heart. Whenever there's an issue, they ask tough questions to make sure no one leaves the trash for others to pick up:

  • Are expectations being clearly communicated or was misunderstanding a key cause of this?
  • Is this problem created by an outlier who may not be a fit at Netflix?
  • Why would someone acting as a responsible adult do this?

Reward collaboration, not individual goals – ownership is a collective mindset.

Delegate authority, not just responsibility

Managers often expect people to become more accountable without giving them the power to make decisions. Distributing decision-making rights to those closest to the work provides speed and, usually, better outcomes. Those in more proximity to the 'client' or problem are better informed to make decisions.

The Andon Cord is a concept that was vital to the Toyota Production System. It consisted of a pull cord or button that any worker could activate to stop production, prevent faulty cars, and fix the problem.

Amazon has adopted the principle of the Andon Cord, giving support agents full authority to "pull the cord" when they suspect a problem with the inventory. This helps prevents issues from escalating.

Delegating authority increases a sense of ownership – people take the outcome more seriously. If you want people to own the consequences, let them own their decisions.

Reward the behavior, not the metric

Adding accountability does not always equal success. When Mailchimp added the notion of direct accountability to a measure for one of their teams a few years back, team members chose work that drove the metric they were accountable for – to the detriment of overall customer experience and revenue. A classic example of perverse incentives.

As John Foreman, Chief Product Officer at Mailchimp, wrote, "When you add accountability to the movement of a measure, you do indeed 'get what you measure.' But it often feels Shakespearean. You get what you measure, but what you get is not what you wanted."

Mailchimp learned that it's better to focus on indirect accountability: Reward the behaviors that help move the needle.

Rather than checking if his team "moved the measure," Foreman recommends asking:

  • What are the levers you have on the team for moving your measures?
  • Why did you think the work you just completed would move your measures? Why do you think it did or didn't have the desired results?
  • What have you learned from that experience that will influence your next work?
  • Tell me why the work you've planned next, then, is going to move your measures?

Employees should own the behaviors that will move the metric – they should do what's right, not just achieve a short-term target.

Focus on the end product, not the project

The difference between focusing on the project and the end product is ownership. It encourages people to care about quality and outcome, not just deadlines or milestones.

Customer engagement platform Twilio organizes staff into small teams that own the experience from end to end. As CEO Jeff Lawson explains, "Our teams are defined by three things: the customer they're serving, the mission they're on in service of that customer, and the metrics that tell us whether we're doing a good job." This approach allows each team to take the ball and run with it.

Leaders at Twilio strive to poke holes through the organization to increase visibility across teams. For example, developers sit in on sales calls or occasionally handle support tickets for their products.

When people focus on the forest, not the tree, their sense of ownership increases.

Stop rewarding unfairness

When organizations give underperformers a pass, they reward a lack of accountability. Even worse, they usually punish high-performers by giving them more work to offset low performers' inefficiency.

Fairness is crucial to promoting a sense of ownership within your team. If people don't feel treated fairly – either because managers play favorites or give low performers a pass – they will disengage or fight to get credit. This thus promotes individuality.

Prioritizing fairness at work helps overcome biases within accountability systems. Studies show that managers tend to treat certain groups advantageously over others. Fairness is about rewarding people for the outcome, not input such as presenteeism or busyness.

Allow people to define standards

When goals and metrics are defined by managers, they feel foreign. It's hard for people to own something that "comes from the top" without being consulted. Inviting people to help define the standards not only creates ownership: it also removes the need to get buy-in.

Hubert Joly, a former CEO of Best Buy, applied that principle to turn the dying electronics retailer around. He asked store managers, "What does it look like when we are at our best?" By encouraging employees to dream of a better future – to define the standard for the company – Joly created a culture of collective ownership.

When people help set the bar, they feel more motivated to reach and exceed their goals.

Building a culture of ownership

Accountability is important, but ownership creates a more profound impact. A culture of ownership replaces blame with questions. When things go wrong, people focus on learning from it instead of pointing fingers.

As a leader, showing genuine appreciation can go a long way in reinforcing positive behaviors. Reward those who step up and go above and beyond. Avoid giving a pass to those who don't care – this will send the wrong message to those who do have a sense of ownership.

Metrics matter. However, focusing on doing the right thing is more important. Reward the behaviors that move the needle, not the people who are good at beating the accountability system.

If you enjoyed this post, check out my new book Remote, Not Distant: How to build a strong culture and succeed in a hybrid workplace.

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