Taking ownership

7 ways to encourage employees to take ownership of their work

You’ve probably heard someone say, “One of my professional goals is taking ownership of a big project.” But as a business leader, have you said, “I really want my employees to desire taking ownership of their work”?

When you think if an ideal employee or team, qualities like good communication, problem-solving and dependability come to mind. But an essential component of a high-functioning team, and outstanding business performance, is individual employees taking ownership of their work.

And the benefits of employee ownership extend beyond strong business performance.

There’s a direct link between employees taking ownership of their work and businesses achieving the things that are most important to them: high employee engagement, morale and retention. Furthermore, employees taking ownership is an indicator of a desirable workplace culture and thriving manager-direct report relationships.

Clearly, employees taking ownership should be a priority at any organization.

So, what is taking ownership at work all about?

We’ve all heard phrases such as take the reins, hit the ground running or take the ball and run with it, right? That’s exactly what we’re talking about here.

When we refer to an employee taking ownership of their work, this means that they assume responsibility for completing or overseeing a task, project or initiative from start to finish, and are accountable for the results.

During the process of completing their work, these employees are motivated to put in their best effort, going above and beyond to enhance the quality of their work. They feel invested in the outcome – caring about organizational success in the same way that their manager or a business owner would. Concerned for their own personal success as well, they desire to make a positive, wide-ranging impact and carry influence within their sphere of expertise.

What does taking ownership at work look like?

Employees who take ownership may:

  • Volunteer first for opportunities and assignments when their manager offers
  • Are proactive in knowing which tasks must be done – acting independently and without requiring instruction
  • Anticipate potential problems and take steps to resolve issues before they escalate
  • Take risks in a calculated, thoughtful way that’s intended to advance creativity or innovation

On a day-to-day basis, employees who take ownership exhibit these characteristics:

  • Interest and satisfaction in the work they do
  • Eagerness to learn and do more
  • Fully participate in team or client meetings
  • Are willing to provide feedback and ideas
  • Practice autonomy and self-sufficiency
  • Confidence
  • Healthy ambition
  • Awareness that they are the masters of their own success

Taking ownership is the same thing as telling others in the workplace that you’re trustworthy, reliable, conscientious and diligent – even when authority figures aren’t looking.

Ultimately, taking ownership is the intersection of individual passion with initiative and accountability.

The alternative scenario has employees:

  • Doing the bare minimum to get by
  • Going through the motions each day on autopilot, without the motivation or inspiration to think of new ideas or uncover opportunities for improvement
  • Withdrawing – not sharing ideas or taking healthy risks – and letting the organization stagnate
  • Going to their manager and seeking help with every little thing

Why taking ownership matters

Taking ownership is important for employees, managers and the entire business.

For employees, taking ownership helps them to:

  • Build trust with their manager and other team members
  • Increase their self-confidence and sense of self-worth
  • Take pride in their work and experience ever-greater levels of autonomy
  • Keep learning, growing and developing
  • Assume additional responsibilities and become a candidate for promotions
  • Excel in their career

From a manager’s perspective, these employees:

  • Free managers to focus more on strategic goals and bigger-picture issues, instead of forcing them to get involved with every minor task and conflict employees may experience.
  • Strengthen relationships with their managers and reduce the need for difficult, tense conversations about performance.
  • Strengthen team morale and positively influence other employees to work harder and feel connected to broader team goals

For the organization as a whole, employees taking ownership positively impacts the bottom line through:

  • Happier, more fulfilled and committed employees
  • Low turnover and, therefore, better retention
  • High-quality work output
  • More idea sharing and innovation
  • Improved culture and team dynamics

7 ways leaders can encourage taking ownership at work

Of course you want your employees to take ownership. Employees who embrace these characteristics are every manager’s dream team member!

But, how do you get to this point?

As a manager, here are the actions you should take to encourage your employees to take ownership of their work and reap the benefits.

1. Exhibit ownership and passion yourself

Everything starts at the top of the organization. Your employees take their cues about what’s important and how to act from you – if you want your employees to embrace a certain behavior, you have to model it.

At the outset, explain to each employee that you value their taking ownership and encourage them to do it.

2. Get to know your people

It can be difficult to inspire people to do more when you don’t fully understand them and what makes them tick. So, learn about your team members as individuals.

  • Where do they see themselves next?
  • What’s their ultimate dream role?
  • What excites them most?
  • What motivates them every day?
  • What are their strengths?
  • What are their hidden talents and interests?
  • Do they have any fears or roadblocks that are holding them back?

Regular one-on-one meetings and team meetings are important for regularly checking in to discuss these topics and just find out how they’re doing in general – both professionally and personally.

So much of encouraging employees to take ownership comes down to building rapport and maintaining open communication.

3. Align workers’ job functions and projects with company goals, mission, vision and values

Most people don’t find it inspiring and empowering to feel like a “sheeple,” just blindly following orders with limited visibility. We all need to understand the why behind what we do.

That’s why employees must know:

  • The full extent of their job responsibilities, the parameters they work within and your expectations for their performance
  • Whether you permit them to step outside their “job description box” and think bigger (and you should)
  • How their role fits within the larger team and impacts or supports other positions
  • Why their job functions – from day-to-day tasks to major initiatives – matter and how they contribute to the company’s success in reaching goals
  • How their role upholds the company mission, vision and values

It’s up to leaders to communicate this bigger-picture vision and imbue team members with a sense of purpose and direction.

Furthermore, when employees understand the reasoning behind what they do and how they do it, they are more likely to feel confident stepping up, claiming ownership and making good decisions when called upon to do so.

4. Provide ongoing opportunities for learning and development

When employees first join your team, whether they’re brand-new hires or they’ve transitioned into a new role from another team or department, you need to give them a good foundation for their role through training.

Their initial training period is when employees:

  • Learn new processes, procedures and, potentially, technical skills and technology systems
  • Build relationships
  • Adapt to team dynamics and norms
  • Acclimate to the culture
  • Figure out how their role fits in

As their manager, you are responsible for getting employees to a place at which they feel knowledgeable, prepared and confident – and, as a result, will feel comfortable seizing ownership when the opportunity arises.

But to maintain employees’ passion and motivation to do more, establish a culture of continuous learning.

Help employees expand their knowledge, keep up with trends and understand that their initiative equates with advancement:

  • Work with employees to formulate their career path and set benchmarks about what they need to learn and do along the way to accomplish their ultimate goals. Also include them in your succession planning.
  • Connect employees with internal training resources, such as webinars, podcasts, articles or online courses, as well as vetted external development opportunities.
  • Allow them to shadow colleagues and other groups from whom they can learn a valuable skill and forge relationships across the company.
  • Pair employees with a mentor.

5. Ask for employees’ input – and listen to them

Want to know what your employees think about a business challenge? Want them to share their ideas for achieving a certain goal? Get in the habit of regularly asking them for their opinions.

This is a major part of building up employees’ self-confidence and autonomy. After all, everyone wants to feel like others trust them and value their opinion. Once that seed has been planted, employees will do it more often.

However, to maintain trust and a culture in which employees feel comfortable speaking up to share their ideas and opinions, you need to:

  • Listen thoughtfully and ask follow-up questions if you need clarification.
  • Carefully consider their input – avoid criticism or quick rejection.
  • Explain tactfully why you can’t implement a suggestion at this time, if you’re unable to do so.
  • Encourage them to keep sharing.

6. Show gratitude

Instilling a culture of gratitude in your workplace is so important.

Everyone likes to receive positive feedback and feel appreciated. It makes us feel good about ourselves and, as a result, increases confidence. It also creates an environment in which people are happier and more motivated.

When your employees exhibit desirable behavior, such as taking ownership of their work or accomplishing a positive outcome, don’t forget to thank them and tell them you noticed.

Also consider a formal recognition program or encouraging peers to recognize each other for a job well done.

As a result of earning the acknowledgement that most employees crave, they’ll keep up the good work.

7. Encourage autonomy. No micromanaging!

Hopefully, with the rise of remote and hybrid work, the days of managers hovering over their employees’ shoulders and breathing down their necks is a manager mistake of the past.

There’s no quicker way to diminish employee morale, initiative and confidence than making them feel constantly watched, judged and bossed around, forced to conform to someone else’s preferences.

Remember earlier when we said that employees take their behavioral cues from managers? If you make them feel small and childlike, they’ll feel stifled and resentful. If you make them feel boxed into a certain way of doing things, it reinforces the idea that they’re “beneath” you and can’t do anything without your say-so.

But if you empower them and build them up, they’ll take ownership. In fact, most employees want more autonomy in the workplace – not less. People want to feel smart, valued and trusted.

How can you banish the temptation to micromanage and learn to let go?

 Understand the proper role of a manager.

Managers should be available to answer questions, offer guidance and coach employees – not to spoon feed employees and hold their hand every step of the way. You do not need to get involved in every single task that an employee undertakes or manage every single conflict or challenge that employees face. Instead, encourage their independence.

Learn to delegate more often.

  • Determine which tasks require your involvement versus those you can hand off to others.
  • Strive to make your people feel capable and prepared.
  • Assure them that they have your full confidence, but you’re available to support them when needed.
  • Strike a balance between that support and giving them the freedom to inject their own discretion, creativity, problem-solving skills and decision-making authority into assignments.

Engage in open communication with employees and solicit their feedback on your performance.

Ask them how you can better serve them.

  • What do they need from you?
  • What, specifically, do they wish you would do more – or less?
  • How well are you walking the line between overzealous oversight and ensuring that everyone’s on track?

Summing it all up

Employees taking ownership of their work is critical for businesses in terms of a motivated, confident, and engaged workforce; trusting relationships; quality work output; and, ultimately, successful performance and goal achievement. If you implement the seven tips outlined here, you’ll have a positive work environment in which employees feel empowered to take ownership of their work and managers feel comfortable in stepping back and enabling more independence.

Encouraging autonomy is one piece of the puzzle. To learn more about creating a workplace in which employees want to stay for the long term, download our free magazine: The Insperity guide to employee engagement.

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