When Job Ownership Runs Amok

When it comes to fostering engagement in the workplace, encouraging employees to take ownership of their jobs is right up there with providing meaningful work. In American Venture Magazine[1], Dr. Noelle C. Nelson writes:

two people fighting for control

“Studies show that job satisfaction among employees by itself doesn’t predict productivity. It is only when job satisfaction is paired with psychological well-being at work that productivity is high. Psychological well-being at work includes a sense of purpose in one’s job and a feeling of accomplishment. One of the easiest ways of supporting employees’ sense of purpose is to give them ownership of their job.*”

What is Job Ownership?

Job ownership doesn’t mean holding shares in the company you work for.  Although it could, since national survey data indicates 17.4% of private sector employees in the U.S. do.[2]  But actual ownership in a company is not the kind of ownership we’re talking about here. The idea of job ownership comes with a variety of descriptions.

MacMillan Dictionary provides this succinct definition: “An attitude of accepting responsibility for something and taking control of how it develops.”

The blog, Ownership on the Job[3], says a sense of ownership exists: “When one carries out the organizational assignments, projects, work/actions as if they are his own in a professional sense, he is in the mindset of ownership.”

Author Kim Thompson writes: “Taking ownership means you hold yourself accountable for your actions and how you do your job.”[4]

And Hospitality Consultant, Walter Sasiadek describes job ownership as “an attitude of excellence, achievement and expertise.”

Cultivating a sense of job ownership in employees matters because; they will

  • feel more invested in their work,
  • experience greater job satisfaction,
  • make decisions more responsibly and thoughtfully, and
  • be more motivated to seek creative and innovative solutions.

In general, when the employees in an organization take ownership of their work, everyone enjoys a more positive and fulfilling working environment.

When Job Ownership Goes Wrong

Occasionally, job ownership morphs into something destructive when it inadvertently feeds an underlying need for extreme control or enhances narcissistic tendencies.

Take the case of a small business owner I know (let’s call him John). He recently dismissed the office manager who helped him grow his business over the past 10 years. In this case, an excellent, highly engaged employee gradually transformed into a controlling bully who alienated her co-workers and eventually started bossing her boss around.

Her sense of ownership became so extreme that she literally started ordering John around and being abusive when she got push back. The change happened gradually and John was reluctant to take issue with someone he’d always considered an asset. His lack of response “fed the beast” and the employee became increasingly overbearing. Finally, when the rest of the staff came to him in despair, John took her aside to discuss the situation.  By that time, she had such an overdeveloped sense of ownership; she told him he had no right to tell her how to run “her office.”

Or consider this Machiavellian employee (Arnold), who functioned as a stellar second-in-command to Ima Boss, while systematically undermining her relationship with staff, suppliers, customers and funders. Arnold’s sense of extreme ownership culminated in an attempted coup when he told Ima to step down or watch him destroy her business!

Owning the Job, Not Everything

Giving your employees a degree of autonomy and discretion to foster a sense of ownership makes sense: letting that sense of ownership run amok does not. Two similarities are evident in the above examples:

  1. A high-achieving employee with an excessive need for control who is ready and eager to run with it.
  2. A boss who believes in giving people ownership, and then glosses over early warning signs of its abuse.

Both John and Ima were uneasy with certain behaviors, but they dismissed them because of past (or intermittent) stellar performance.

In John’s case, he had come to rely on his office manager, so he brushed off his own misgivings and focused on how effective she’d been in the past. It wasn’t until his other staff confronted him in desperation that he took action. His office manager’s response when challenged was a clear indication that John had let things get out of hand.

In Ima’s case, her concerns developed over a shorter period of time and, unlike John, she did start to document them. But whenever she considered acting on those concerns, Arnold would distract her by accomplishing something exceptional. In the end, he confronted her to deliver his ultimatum.

Fostering job ownership in your employees doesn’t mean abdicating responsibility for managing them. Helping people take accountability for their own work and how they do their jobs doesn’t mean letting them take over the shop. Power and responsibility are two sides of the same coin; as are ownership and accountability. When you set out to foster job ownership in your team by giving them more discretionary power, make sure they understand both sides of the equation. And remember to keep enough responsibility and accountability on hand for yourself.


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Photo credit: Photo by David Castillo Dominici, courtesy of http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/

* Emphasis added

[1] Noelle C. Nelson, Ph.D. Give Employees a Sense of Ownership. http://www.noellenelson.com/docs/American%20Venture%20Magazine%20-%2010-3-06.pdf

[2] National Center for Employee Ownership. A Brief Overview of Employee Ownership in the U.S. https://www.nceo.org/articles/employee-ownership-esop-united-states

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