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The promise of high-ownership teams

4 min read


I attended a conference in Southern California last week just after the San Bernardino massacre. I couldn’t help but notice the hosts and hostesses throughout the convention center paying close attention to badges. If someone had forgotten to attach it or if it was turned around and not visible, an employee would cordially inquire, make a request to see the badge, or guide the person to the escalators that would remove them from the building.

Their vigilance (and courtesy) caught my attention so I pulled one hostess aside on the last day of the conference to ask if this additional level of security was the result of a special advisory or just normal protocol. She paused for a moment and smiled as she said, “I’ve not seen any warnings; but this is how I feel compelled to behave.”

“This is how I feel compelled to behave.”

Aren’t these the words that all managers and leaders would like to hear from employees? They’re words that speak volumes about the level of commitment that this employee had to her job. They also speak to what customers could count on her for. This employee owned her work and the outcomes she could deliver.

We find ourselves in an era when management and leadership science can offer nearly unlimited performance metrics to monitor, processes to follow, and productivity levers to pull — all in support of organizational results. But, perhaps it’s time for leaders to return to the basics and ask themselves, “How much ownership do my employees really feel for their work?’

For many, the answer will be disappointing. And that’s unfortunate because when employees experience that high sense of ownership, they’re able to tap deep reservoirs of energy, experience, and talent — all of which manifest in outcomes and results that surpass their lower ownership colleagues.

But simply because a team doesn’t demonstrate a high level of ownership today doesn’t mean it can’t be developed. High-ownership teams are generally the result of an effective leader’s conscious and deliberate efforts in four different arenas.

Connecting individual contribution to the whole

People who understand how their work fits into the big picture appreciate the value they bring and the stakes associated with not delivering expected outcomes. When leaders paint the big picture and help paint each team member into it, they activate greater team cohesion, and individual commitment.

Providing the skills and tools required to be successful

One of the greatest impediments to building high levels of ownership is failing to provide what people need to perform optimally. Skimping on training or offering outdated or sub-optimal tools to do the work redirects the energy that could be invested in ownership toward just trying to get by.

Outlining rules and parameters (so know where discretion is)

As counterintuitive as it may seem, providing structure, policies and procedures does not diminish ownership. Understanding boundary conditions provides the clear information high-ownership teams need in clarifying the limits. It also carves out the gray area in which discretion lives, the space where those committed to exceptional performance can improvise and exceed expectations.

Involving people in decisions that affect them

There’s little that robs people of a sense of ownership more than being “done to” — having those far away from their reality make decisions that directly affect them. Leaders exclude team members from these discussions and decisions at their peril. Those closest to the work are in the best position to mold it; and when they do, business outcomes are generally optimized and ownership is elevated.

When teams experience a high degree of ownership, they become self-generating sources of quality, productivity, innovation and results. Team members take problems into their own hands, and have the skills to solve them. They seize opportunities that others might overlook. They “feel compelled” to do the right thing, even without instruction.

And this might be just what individuals, organizations and even our nation needs most right now.

Julie Winkle Giulioni is the author of “Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go: Career Conversations Employees Want,” with Bev Kaye. Giulioni has spent the past 25 years improving performance through learning. She consults with organizations to develop and deploy innovative instructional designs and training worldwide. You can learn more about her consulting, speaking and blog at

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