How to Create Ownership Mentality
Are you looking for a way to dramatically increase the level of performance of teams across your organization? Ownership mentality is the answer. No matter the size of your company or the teams within it, fostering an ownership mindset pays dividends: increased speed and agility, higher levels of performance, better innovation, more strategic leadership, and greater employee engagement and satisfaction.
As a leader, you must ensure that your staff is fully invested in their work and committed to the larger goals of the organization. Taking ownership enhances team members’ engagement and encourages individuals to support the organization and their coworkers. Reading on, you’ll see that this isn’t a simple or easy shift to make for some organizations, but in every case it is possible, and the payoff is worth the effort.
So how do you create this ownership mentality in your team? Read on to find out.
- What is an ownership mindset?
- Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action
- Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win
What is an ownership mindset?
First, let’s define what we mean by an ownership mindset.
Think for a moment about an entrepreneur; a business owner with a small staff team growing what will ultimately become a thriving enterprise. That business owner is willing to put superhuman effort into everything he or she does to grow their business. A new product moving from concept to launch? Expect some long days ahead. A customer has a problem? That owner will move mountains, not resting until the customer is satisfied. Every evening before going to sleep, and every morning as soon as they wake, their mind is on their business: solving problems, strategizing, thinking through exciting new plans and ideas to implement.
And our entrepreneur wouldn’t have it any other way. Sure, their livelihood may depend on the financial health and success of the business. But for a true entrepreneur, it’s not a choice, it’s the way they’re wired. Their business is their passion, it drives them, and they simply wouldn’t be able to put it out of their mind, even if they wanted to.
Now imagine you could replicate that level of passion and drive in every one of the employees on your team. Of course, we’re not suggesting that you’d expect your employees to spend every waking hour thinking about nothing but their work. But what would be the impact on your business if every person on your team was as passionate about their work as that entrepreneur, if they cared as much about the product they’re making as they would if they owned the company?
Passion and drive can seem like elusive qualities. We all want to hire people with them (how many job postings have you seen with those words included?); we all seek them out in our employees. They can be created and developed over time, though. To see how, let’s reflect one more time on our business owner. There are four main elements of a true entrepreneur’s ‘job’ that enable and drive their success.
First, the owner knows the ‘why’. They know why they started their business, and in their mind they clearly see the vision of what they want it to become. Each and every day, the entrepreneur is attuned to the delta between what their business is today and where they want it to be. Because they can see the end result they desire, they know what they have to do today to get closer to that end result.
Second, the owner has end-to-end visibility (and sometimes involvement) throughout their whole business. No matter their product or service, they know each and every step of their lifecycle from start to finish. If something’s going wrong, they know which levers to pull to fix it. If something’s going well, they know what to ramp up, to get more of it. Most importantly, seeing the business end to end gives them the ability to think up new and better ways of doing things; to innovate.
Third, the owner has the authority to make decisions. If something needs to be done right now to fix a problem, or to take advantage of an opportunity, they don’t have to wait. They don’t have to seek approval through multiple levels of management, they can act now – striking while the proverbial iron is hot.
Fourth, and finally, the owner has ultimate accountability for results – good or bad. If the business isn’t performing to expectations, it is the owner’s responsibility to understand why, and to fix whatever needs fixing. If the problem can’t be solved, it reflects in a very personal way on the owner – and possibly through their bank account balance as well. On the upside, if a business is exceeding its goals, the owner feels a sense of pride and accomplishment, and is financially rewarded for leading the business to that success.
These four elements are the keys to unlocking an ownership mindset in any employee, in any team: understanding and believing in the ‘why’, end-to-end visibility and transparency, decision-making ability, and accountability for results.
While it’s entirely possible to foster each of those elements just as effectively in an employee as in an entrepreneur, it can involve a significant cultural shift in some teams and organizations. Cultural changes like this are not often easy. So to help illustrate why it’s worth the effort, let’s take a closer look at the payoffs.
Benefits of an ownership mindset
The most successful work settings are those in which individuals feel empowered to make their own decisions and solve problems. An ownership mindset means taking responsibility for the success and quality of one’s work. Employees that have an ownership mentality feel more trusted, respected, and dependable. When each employee is motivated to take ownership of their work, both individually and collectively, employees benefit … and so does your business's bottom line.
Speed and Agility
When teams feel end-to-end ownership for an outcome, they’re able to make decisions more quickly, and they’ll be more likely to consistently make the right decisions. They understand what the ultimate objective is, so – assuming that they’re trained and knowledgeable employees – they know what they need to do to reach it. If there are other people or teams involved along the way, or additional resources that need to be pulled in, they can anticipate those requirements and coordinate in real time. They don’t need to wait to be told what to do, or for multiple layers of approval. Multiply this across teams, and you’ve got an organization that moves quickly and nimbly.
Innovation and Creativity
Every leader wants their people and teams to be more innovative, but it can be challenging to spark that fire. Creating an ownership mindset, moving away from task management, is a shortcut. Consider this analogy: if you wanted to direct a person to get from Point A to Point B, you could do this in several ways. You could give them turn-by-turn directions, telling them precisely which streets to take along the way. Alternatively, you might simply give them the destination and the tools (a map or GPS) to get there, and trust them to handle it on their own. In the latter, they’d be able to quickly adapt to unforeseen hurdles (a road closure, for example), and they might even find a better and faster way to get there than you had seen. The same holds true in any work team: if everyone knows the ultimate expected outcome, and has the tools and the skills to get there, every single person has the opportunity to innovate and come up with creative responses to problems and opportunities.
Morale and Performance
It’s difficult to be motivated and inspired if every day at work, one feels like just a ‘cog in a machine’. Conversely, working in a high-trust environment feels good. When people know that their leader trusts them to do good work and to make good decisions, they’re far more likely to perform at a high level. When employees know they have the freedom to speak up, to contribute ideas and make suggestions, they feel heard and valued and morale goes up. When people are given the opportunity to exercise their creativity and problem-solving abilities, they’re more engaged in their work. Performance levels increase across the board because every member of the team is giving their all.
Recruitment and Retention
A team or organization that becomes known for fostering and empowering an ownership mindset can be a powerful draw for top talent. High performing employees don’t want to be a ‘cog’. They want to work in an environment where they are trusted and valued, where expectations are high, and where they have an opportunity to contribute in meaningful ways – where they can see how their individual output makes a difference at the highest level. This is also where even the smallest organizations can have a significant recruitment advantage; end-to-end ownership structures and processes can be easier to implement in small teams and organizations than in larger companies. A talented developer might jump at the chance to own the entire user onboarding flow at a small company, rather than owning a small design element in one of many products from a tech giant.
Signs your team doesn’t have an ownership mindset
Thinking about your own team, do you believe your people currently have an ownership mindset? It’s fairly easy to tell if a team is operating at that level through quantifiable results, and also by ‘feel’; a team with a high level of ownership often has a startup vibe. Likewise, there are several telltale signs that can help you diagnose a lack of this ownership mindset in your team and organization.
The first and most general symptom to look out for is chronic underperformance, sometimes accompanied by low morale. When individual members of teams don’t feel ownership, when they don’t feel empowered to make decisions, when they can’t see how their day-to-day work contributes to the big picture, they simply won’t do their best work. Performance lags, things move more slowly, and morale starts to slide. If you’re seeing generalized issues like this in your teams, committing to fostering an ownership mindset can be a highly effective way to reverse the trend.
Digging deeper into general low performance levels, there are specific behaviors at the individual level that can indicate low levels of ownership. One in particular is the “tragedy of the commons”. Frontline members of teams are often in the best position to spot problems first because they’re closest to the product and the customer. But spotting a problem is only half the job. Calling it out – or even fixing it – is what we really want from our people. If people feel a sense of empowered ownership, they’ll do exactly that: whatever it takes to get the job done. If they don’t feel empowered, why should they? That’s ‘someone else’s job’.
Further downstream, low levels of ownership can even show up in the product itself. A disjointed, ‘clunky’ user experience can be the best indicator. When individual team members only have responsibility for individual, compartmentalized tasks, the team loses the opportunity to see and experience the final product as the end user will. This can quickly lead to a product with a poor user experience – particularly one where the issue is hard to put your finger on, where things just don’t feel right.
Each of these qualities in isolation may not necessarily indicate low levels of ownership in your team or organization, but if you see evidence of all three, it’s almost certain that ownership is lacking in your team.
Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action
Use a strong “why” to build a shared purpose
Many of the attributes of a team with high levels of ownership mindset can be accomplished through management and process changes, and we’ll look more closely at that in the next section. First, though, consider the fundamental defining quality of the true entrepreneur we thought about earlier: the owner’s ‘why’. This can be the most challenging quality to inspire in an employee, simply because they don’t, in fact, own the company or the product in a literal sense. It is possible, though, and it’s necessary, as it sets the foundation for everything else you do to create and foster an ownership mindset. It’s also one of the most powerful tools you can use to radically increase employee engagement, innovation, and performance in any team.
As Simon Sinek so aptly phrases this concept, “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. And what you do simply proves what you believe.” This is true at the customer level, but it’s also true of the employee experience.
A leader with a compelling vision – a ‘why’ – attracts people who share that vision. Those people are imbued with a sense of shared purpose, one they feel inside, one that inspires them, and drives them to do whatever it takes to pursue and realize that vision. Knowing what to do isn't enough; fully-engaged employees must also understand why they're doing it. Knowing how their day-to-day work benefits the company will provide them with a clear sense of purpose.
The best way to create this sense of purpose is to engage your team in defining it. Your ‘why’ may be inspiring, and ultimately most important to you. But a shared purpose, one which the team has had a hand in defining, creates a level of buy-in that can’t easily be created any other way. The best purpose statements are short, simple, and to the point. They’re easy to remember, because they use plain language to describe why a team, or an organization, exists.
Here are excellent examples of company-wide statements that illustrate this concept:
- Airbnb - To create a world where anyone can belong anywhere.
- Slack - Making work simpler, more pleasant, and more productive.
- Disney - To Make People Happy.
Define why the team exists
- Write what your team performs, delivers, or produces in one sentence. Invite team members to provide 2 or 3 ideas each. Rank the responses from most to least important based on similarity. For example, the data engineering team’s purpose is: “To turn data into valuable insights to improve decision-making across the company".
- Identify the stakeholder groups your team serves. Do you serve a certain department or the whole company? Choose the top one and capture what impact you want to create. For example, our HR department at SoftKraft defines its team purpose as, “To help our team leaders hire great talent.”
A compelling and inspiring ‘why’ is the first step to fully engaging every member of your team in a shared purpose, and creating a deeply-felt sense of ownership.
Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win
Creating a sense of shared purpose is a powerful first step to fostering an ownership mindset in team members. The rest is accomplished through a balance of process design and management approaches, some of which may be different than those currently in place in your team and organization.
To talk about implementing those changes, we’ll look next to an unlikely source of inspiration from outside the realm of business altogether: the U.S. Navy SEALs and Extreme Ownership.
Jocko Willink and Leif Babin, two former Navy SEALs, developed this concept in the NYT bestseller Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win in 2007. Extreme ownership is about self-discipline and responsibility at its most basic level. It's your job as a leader to decentralize command and control; to assign responsibility to others and hold them accountable for their actions.
Despite the fact that they don't mention remote teams, their strategy is similar to the telecommuting paradigm in many respects. On the battlefield, communication and self-management are essential skills for every single individual. Likewise, the importance of these two characteristics cannot be overstated in distant teams.
Below, we’ll cover six specific ways in which you can apply Extreme Ownership thinking in your team’s structure, process, and your own leadership.
Help them take control
When starting anything new – a new project, a new job – there’s almost always a learning curve. Extreme Ownership doesn’t imply or demand that anyone is or should be self-sufficient from day one. A leader recognizes this, and builds structures around new or developing employees that support them in moving through that learning curve.
An onboarding document with some simple instructions included gives new employees a resource to look back to when they have questions. It only has to be created once, and it can be used time and time again to support new team members.
Beyond the fundamentals, one key to helping employees feel able to take control is creating a safe and open environment. Good leaders encourage people to ask questions, so they can avoid wasting time figuring out simple things. Over time, those leaders support developing employees in thinking through their own answers. Team members are often the best source of ideas for suggestions and ideas for improvement. Leaders who show appreciation and respect by soliciting those suggestions, fostering an early sense of achievement and ownership. Failure is inevitable, and leaders who wish to foster an ownership mindset plan for this. Structures and processes are in place to ensure that employees can fail safely, without risking too much time, money, or a mission-critical deliverable. And when employees do fail, as they surely will, that failure is treated as a learning opportunity rather than an insurmountable infraction.
Creating Ownership Mentality
- Communicate directly, honestly, and constructively with your team members if you want them to learn from their mistakes. Your people need to know that stretching themselves and taking chances is appropriate and won't result in punishment.
- Encourage an effective risk-taking cycle: learn from, own, fix, and safeguard. Team members should learn from their mistakes, own their part, rectify the repercussions of their failures, and put in place necessary precautions to prevent future mistakes.
- Differentiate between encouraging mistakes and allowing mistakes. Encourage your team to stretch themselves, try new things, and take risks where appropriate. If they fail, that failure isn’t ignored; it’s a growth and learning opportunity.
- Look for ways to observe your team without interfering in their work if you suspect they are doing something incorrectly. As a leader, you can make better informed decisions about if and when to intervene.
Assign responsibilities instead of tasks to improve efficiency
In thinking about and applying this concept, think about the person we were directing from Point A to Point B. Assigning tasks to employees is like providing turn-by-turn directions. Not only does this inhibit the potential innovation and creativity of employees, it’s disengaging. To a high performing employee, task assignments represent a lack of trust and respect for their skills and abilities. They want to know that they were hired because they know how to do their job and do it well, not to work as a ‘cog’.
Instead, a high performing team member wants to take responsibility for their outcomes. Good leaders develop an ownership mindset in their team members by defining clear expectations about areas of responsibility, communicating those expectations clearly, providing the tools and resources needed to get the job done … and then getting out of their way. When employees are responsible for planning and executing to this level, there is an increase in efficiency. By treating the responsibility fully as their own, they’re motivated to accomplish the best possible outcome with the least work on their part.
In no way does this suggest that employees have complete freedom to do whatever they wish, whenever they wish. Extreme Ownership supports self-management, but that self-management focuses on and surrounds roles and tasks that have been predetermined by the organization. This is why building an ownership mindset in your employees means taking your own leadership to a higher level: assigning tasks keeps leaders ‘in the weeds’, while providing ownership frees you to be more strategic in your thinking and your leadership generally.
Creating Ownership Mentality
- Make your expectations clear, but at a higher level than ‘task’. Describe what a high-quality output from them looks like - what the end goal is. If the outcome doesn't meet the expectations you set out, use this as a chance to clarify your expectations and encourage them to do better next time.
- Assigning responsibilities to a team member isn't enough. A leader also anticipates the information and resources that will be needed along the way. Create and provide the necessary instructions and documentation to ensure your team’s success in owning and reaching the required outcome.
Improve as a leader
Some might believe that in an environment with high levels of ownership mentality, managers become less necessary, less relevant. In fact, it's the polar opposite. Fostering an ownership mindset in your teams will assist you in becoming a better leader - in fact, it will demand a higher level of leadership from you.
Insecure leaders micromanage, focusing on tasks. A secure and mature leader encourages leadership traits and behaviors in others - including ownership.
Ideally, you want your team to grow to become a team of problem solvers. This means allowing people to fail, which is one of the most difficult things for many leaders to do. As a leader, your people must not only own the project, but also the difficulties along the way. The key is to decide when it's time for them to call for your help and when it's best to leave problem solving to them. Defining those thresholds, and communicating them clearly, supports your team in taking ownership: they know what their scope of responsibility is, and they also know you’ve got their back if things aren’t going according to plan.
To borrow a parallel from Extreme Ownership thinking, what do SEALs do when they feel overwhelmed by problems? They stop, they relax, they look around and make a call. They focus on what's most important and of the highest priority. In a high ownership environment, that’s what every leader looks for from members of their team.
Through the process of giving increasing levels of ownership, you'll develop patience (another quality that can be challenging for leaders). It takes time for these steps to pay dividends; allow that time while supporting your team members and honing your leadership skills.
In cultivating an environment with a high level of ownership, always lead by example, demonstrating your own dependability and trustworthiness to your team. When team members feel secure in their ability to rely on and trust one another and their business owner, work becomes more effective, productive, and efficient.
Creating Ownership Mentality
- Model Extreme Ownership yourself. This is the greatest approach to introduce, develop, and sustain it with your team. When you take Extreme Ownership and show what that means, your team is more likely to take Extreme Ownership.
- Give ownership if you want people to take ownership. Support and encourage the team members to lead initiatives. When things go well, show appreciation and give credit where credit is due. If things go wrong, hold people accountable, and guide them in learning from their mistakes.
- Admit uncertainty, manage risk, and keep pushing towards the purpose. This is also modeling the ownership you want to see. You will rarely be 100% confident of the outcome of your activities. Show your team that a ‘wait and see’ approach is merely delaying action.
Minimize the need for constant communication
Teams of all kinds struggle with effective communication, and this is one of the critical focus areas for leaders wishing to create an environment with high levels of ownership mindset.
This is a particularly acute challenge for distributed teams, in a context in which it is not possible to meet face to face. We know that body language is just as important - if not more so - than the words that are said. That being the case, a significant amount of communication in remote teams goes unnoticed. For widely distributed teams, it’s even more challenging. It's difficult, if not impossible, to get everyone in an online meeting because of their different time zones and working hours. Progress can get stuck when someone goes absent without notice.
Ownership mindset is the solution. Extreme ownership produces independent thinkers, not just cogs in the wheel. Team members are encouraged to think and discover a way forward when they have ownership. People stop thinking when leaders provide all of the answers and directions. This creates a level of dependency that is far from ideal in any team - particularly remote teams.
There are numerous ways to increase communication quality, and the success of those approaches depends heavily on the organization and team. The first step is to reduce the need for - and reliance on - continual communication. Doing this does increase the quality of communication. Instead of conference calls where the leader talks and everyone else listens, you'll get valuable feedback and on-the-ground insight from everyone on your team.
Creating Ownership Mentality
- Solidify belief in the mission. Make sure every individual on the team is fully ‘bought in’ and has a clear picture of the objectives and expectations along the way.
- Communicate the mission and strategic picture often. Do this more frequently than you may think is necessary. If the team clearly understands the purpose, it’s less necessary to explain every single decision.
- Encourage effective communication in and between teams. Support your people in communicating effectively with each other and taking responsibility for problem solving, within appropriate boundaries.
Build team spirit
If you had to name one factor that allowed certain teams to outperform others, what would it be? Motivation, maybe? Perhaps a higher average IQ? Neither of those, in fact. Research suggests that it’s the cohesiveness of the team. Teams that communicated more, participated equally in discussions and debates, and had superior emotion-reading abilities outperformed others, according to the researchers.
So how, then, does a leader get people and teams working well together? In high ownership teams, relationships are key. Relationships between individuals are the bonds that allow for communication and collaboration, and self-management. This is in contrast to low ownership environments, in which managers rely on hierarchy and rigid structure to maintain control.
Leaders of high ownership teams prioritize the relationships between their team members over a position-based respect for the person in charge. This means putting aside their ego, and showing that they trust others to be the ‘smartest person in the room’ when required.
Creating Ownership Mentality
- Cover and move. This is teamwork. Individuals and teams must work together to achieve the purpose. Leaders must find creative ways to get people and teams to work well together.
- Build relationships. They are far more important to achieving an outcome than the chain of command. Who is in charge of whom is of little consequence.
- Set aside your ego and focus on building trust, professionalism, and mutual support. Instead of asking for their help, show them how you can help.
Show your appreciation
For every team, in any context, feeling appreciated and valued is one of the dominant contributors to high levels of engagement and performance. In an environment of high ownership mentality, appreciation is critical. If you want members of your team to embrace taking full ownership, they need to know when they’ve done well. This is the equally-important flip side of the accountability coin: holding individuals responsible for the expected outcomes also means being clear when they’ve met them.
Of course, like many other things, this can be more challenging with remote teams. And it shows, with companies who hadn’t been accustomed to distributed teams but moved to that model when COVID hit. In fact, only 1 out of every 5 remote employees said that their organizations rewarded or recognized them since the beginning of the pandemic. This is a mistake - and quite possibly one of the driving factors behind the so-called ‘Great Resignation of 2021’. An employee who feels valued and appreciated is one who’s more likely to put additional discretionary effort into the work they own, and they’re more likely to stay engaged and remain on your team.
If your team members are all onsite, consider the ways you show your appreciation for the work they do, and how frequently you do so (and if you’re working with distributed teams, consider how you can adapt practices that are more common to onsite workers). As you grow the level of ownership among your team members, particularly concentrate on highlighting and recognizing accomplishments of the objective they own (in addition to task accomplishment). This reinforces and rewards the focus and emphasis your team members place on those outcomes.
Creating Ownership Mentality
- Provide frequent, just-in-time employee recognition. Make sending an email or calling to say “good job” a natural habit for your team. This sort of micro-recognition helps create a culture of support and shows your team you see how hard they’re working.
- Encourage peer recognition. Prompt your people to give each other positive feedback, especially for remote teams. This could be as simple as an email thanking a co-worker or a shout-out in a virtual meeting.
- Share the praise you’ve received from stakeholders, users, and customers. This reinforces ownership of the end result. When you receive praise for a project that was worked on by an offshore team, don't forget to send this praise across to them.
An organization whose employees have an ownership mindset is unstoppable. Employees rally around a shared purpose. They perform at their best because they’re intrinsically driven to achieve that purpose. They take responsibility for outcomes and are empowered to make the decisions that will lead to those outcomes. Innovations are frequent because they come from everywhere and anyone. Employees are happier and more engaged in their work, making it easier for leaders to recruit and retain top talent. In turn, leaders are freed to set their teams up for success and focus on strategy.
Creating a team or an organization like that isn’t necessarily easy, but it’s worth it.