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Handing over the keys: Helping Employees Take Ownership of their Work

Managers were challenged when self-directed work teams became popular in the late 70s. Previously, they micromanaged and supervised everything their employees did. But with the new trend, they had to trust their people to deliver against predetermined goals without constant oversight.

When the COVID pandemic sent many workers home, managers were similarly challenged. Now they had to trust employees to get their work done remotely.

While the work world has changed dramatically over the last half-century, there is a common theme. Employees must be encouraged and trusted to take ownership of their work. Whether as individual contributors or part of a team, workers excel when they have the objectives, tools, and accountability to complete their assignments. They do not need a supervisor peering over their shoulders.

Taking Stock of Taking Ownership

Taking responsibility means doing whatever is necessary to complete the task or solve the problem. It entails taking ultimate responsibility for the solution, even when others need to be involved. It involves initiative – not waiting for someone else to do it. And it requires accountability – being responsible for the result.

Author and CultureWise CEO David J. Friedman writes in Fundamentally Different, “People who take responsibility tend to be doers and learners. They make things happen. And when circumstances don’t work out the way they want, they first look at themselves to see what they can learn and what they can do differently to create a different outcome the next time.”

These are the people who take creative approaches to problem-solving and won’t stop until they find the answer. And while this applies to individuals, it also applies to teams. Some companies, such as Spotify and Google, let employees choose both the projects on which they will work as well as their coworkers. These companies claim this drives more ownership, creativity, and innovation.

This degree of autonomy doesn't work for every company. But a self-directed workforce continues to be a successful way to achieve both business goals and employee engagement.

Benefits of a Self-Driven Workforce

When managers don’t need to supervise, they can take on more strategic priorities. Employees benefit as well. An environment where employees take ownership leads to more:

  • Engagement. Employees feel valued when they know their managers trust them to complete a task and do it well. As a result, they are less likely to jump ship for the next opportunity. Employees with an ownership mindset take responsibility for outcomes and feel empowered to make decisions that lead to results. If they are accountable but have no authority, their engagement

  • Decision-making happens more quickly when delegated to the people doing the work. It's like having a flattened organizational structure or start-up environment. Work doesn’t grind to a halt because a question or problem must be run up the chain of command. And streamlining the decision-making process means getting a new product to market or solving problems timelier.

  • Innovation. Employees step up when challenged to develop new ideas and take intelligent risks. They are more likely to contribute suggestions when they know their managers trust them and respect their opinions. They respond when they have the opportunity to implement their ideas and see them to fruition.

How Can You Help?

As a leader, your role is to set the strategy and enable your team's success. Encourage your team members to work autonomously by:

  • Sharing information – communicating the "big picture"

Employees should always understand the organization's goals and objectives. It helps them feel connected to one another and the overall company. Employees feel more accountable and engaged when they see how their work fits in the bigger picture. Communicate both the short-term and the longer-term goals. Help your team tie their annual objectives to those of the company.

As part of the team who sets the company’s objectives, you may have specific ideas about accomplishing them. Yet, as a blog post in Forbes notes,

“While planning is important for success, not including your team in mapping how you will achieve your goals is not only a missed opportunity to discover good ideas you wouldn’t have thought of yourself, but also a lost chance to get employees to be more involved and take ownership. If you have already established the why of what you are doing, then it is important to also involve your team in brainstorming how you will achieve your targets.”

  • Delegating authority to the lowest level possible

Your company may not be ready to establish autonomous teams. Start by delegating responsibility for projects to individuals and groups. When you give employees authority, they will take it.

Define what success looks like. Give employees the tools and information they need, then let them deliver the results using their approach. It might not be the way you would do it. But focus on the results, not the process. Encourage problem-solving and decision-making. Be available to answer questions and provide feedback along the way.

  • Investing in employee development

Investment isn’t only about funding seminars and leadership programs. It’s about devoting your time to training and developing your team. Make sure they have the training, tools, and information needed to do their jobs.

Support their ideas and help them to be comfortable speaking up and sharing their thoughts. Hold them accountable for delivering results. And never overlook the power of recognizing success. Congratulate employees on a job well done to reinforce their pride in the good work they did. Doing these things builds trust and engagement.

Establishing self-directed work teams takes a bit more work. Employees who are already self-driven are ideal members. They need to have proven expertise and be comfortable making decisions. But they will need some guidance on managing group dynamics and establishing team rules. A Forbes blog post explains,

"Members of self-directed teams have to determine how they intend to work together. Because a boss or supervisor doesn't direct, they need to settle on the principles and deadlines to meet their objective. Some of the teams establish a code or set of rules that define what is expected from individual members."

The team benefits from a leader or mentor assigned to support the group, who can provide input, additional training, and encouragement.

  • Providing air cover

Your teams need to feel psychologically safe to take risks and make decisions. Have their backs when their work is questioned or a project fails. As Friedman notes in Fundamentally Different, “Taking responsibility for mistakes also helps to win the loyalty and respect of those who report to you. Consider whether you provided enough direction, resources, clarity, and training for the job to be completed successfully.”

Culture Drives Ownership

Encouraging employees to take ownership, whether individually or as part of teams, should be an important part of your company culture. Following are examples of behaviors that support a culture of responsibility and accountability.

  • Making Quality Personal – Do your employees routinely ask themselves, “Is this my best work?” Help them see that “good” is not good enough. Don’t let them succumb to the “quiet quitting” or “do the minimum Monday” attitudes.

  • Practicing Blameless Problem-Solving – When the inevitable mistake occurs, what happens? Is there an immediate witch hunt for the guilty party? Are they reprimanded? Or is the focus on fixing the issue, then assessing what went wrong without pointing fingers? Mistakes should be learning opportunities.

  • Getting Clear on Expectations – Does your team know what you expect of them? Ensure they not only understand what's expected of them but that they communicate their expectations to others. It's also important to confirm understanding.

  • Listening Generously and Speaking Courageously – We often hear about "open and honest communication." But what does that look like? Teammates should listen attentively to one another. They should listen to understand the other person, not wait for them to stop talking so they can chime in. Employees should be willing to say what needs to be said. They should be courageous and comfortable enough to know that they will not be penalized for their comments if done in the spirit of ensuring team success.

  • Delivering Results – Is your team focused on outcomes or effort? While effort is important, results are what really matters. Taking responsibility means seeing work through to completion.

Invest in Your Culture

One thing you don’t want to delegate is the responsibility for your company's culture. This needs to be driven from the top leadership down. The senior leadership team should select the behaviors you want your employees to exhibit.

To learn more about how behaviors shape company culture, visit the CultureWise website. And click here to connect with a CultureWise specialist for more information.