Why think like an owner if you aren't one? - SmartBrief

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Why think like an owner if you aren’t one?

Why should employees take ownership? Here's why it's up to you.

6 min read


susan fowler december 2016 image

Of all the values we ask employees to embrace, perhaps the most challenging for them to relate to is ownership. If you own the company or have a position where you’re responsible for your organization’s corporate vitality, the ownership value makes a lot of sense.

You want people to think and act as owners. You hope they will accept personal responsibility for keeping costs low, innovation high, and profits growing. But most of us don’t own the company we work for, so why should we care about the value of ownership?

Think about this: We live in a democracy, but we don’t work in one. We rarely set our own goals, let alone have a voice in establishing major metrics. We don’t determine which products to develop or services to offer, let alone vote on strategic initiatives. We rarely choose our own boss, let alone elect the next president of the company.

Face it, the value of ownership doesn’t exactly hit employees between the eyes.

I think it’s important for executives to help employees determine if the value of ownership is worth pursuing. To help, I recommend three reasons employees might care about ownership. You (or your employees) can take them or leave them, but maybe they will jumpstart your thinking.

Reason No. 1: The “Grumpy Waitperson” Phenomenon

Have you ever been served at a restaurant by a grumpy waiter or waitress? In your irritation or anger you decide to leave a small tip, if any at all — and maybe not eat there again. Do you ever wonder why a waitperson would act in a way that undercuts their income and jeopardizes the success of the company they work for?

There are many possible reasons. Maybe they hate their job. Maybe they are experiencing pain in another part of their lives and they don’t have the energy to overcome it right now. Or, maybe they are simply unaware of how they are coming across.

When my husband and I experience a grumpy waitperson, inevitably, my husband throws out one of his favorite lines: “No smiling!”

Watching a grumpy waitperson react is fascinating. Despite themselves, I have never seen a waitperson who can help from smiling. At that moment, I may swoop in with, “Having a bad day?” One of two things happens. If they are having a bad day, they start to tell you about it. As you listen and ask questions, grumpy waitperson miraculously improves their service. If they aren’t having a bad day, they suddenly become aware of how they were sabotaging their own happiness.

The grumpy waitperson wasn’t accepting ownership for the quality of their own experience. Their lack of awareness was not only affecting others but also their own internal well-being.

Do you know the best outcome of challenging the grumpy waitperson? We all end up having so much more fun! If you show up for work in the first place, why not show up with the value of ownership? Take advantage of your autonomy for creating your own experience. If you have a choice, it’s easier to live a healthy and happy life than a miserable one—and you always have the choice! Don’t be grumpy waitperson! Ownership can be fun!!

Reason No. 2: The “Rental Car” Phenomenon

Have you ever rented a car? I imagine if you’re reading this, that you are basically a good person who would treat a rental car with care. But, be honest. Do you treat the rental car the same as your own car? Studies have shown that even with the threat of having to pay for damages, people tend to mistreat rental cars more than their own.

The same phenomenon applies to the workplace. People who have a sense of ownership in the company they work for treat the company differently than those who don’t. They realize that the more they contribute to the company, the better chance the company has of succeeding. And, a healthy company leads to job security and opportunities for growth. An ownership mindset can become a means for experiencing your psychological need for competence and growth.

Reason No. 3: The “Old Sayings Are True” Phenomenon

Ownership can help you satisfy your psychological need for relatedness, your need to feel cared about and care about others. It makes sense that your work experience is better when you feel that the organization and its leaders authentically care about you.

But you might be surprised to know that research shows that you experience greater well-being when you are able to care about others. What if you interpreted ownership as the privilege of finding ways to care about people you work with, better serve your clients, and make greater contributions to your company? Even when you don’t own decision-making power at your organization, you can own the relationships with the people you work with.

It really is more blessed to give than to receive. Old sayings have hung around for a reason — they’re true! When you practice ownership, you have all the power in the world to give much and receive even more.

Helping individuals discover their own “why” when it comes to choosing values to live and work by is essential, especially when it comes to the value of ownership when you aren’t the owner.


Susan Fowler implores leaders to stop trying to motivate people. In her latest bestselling book, she explains “Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work … And What Does: The New Science of Leading, Engaging, and Energizing. She is the author of by-lined articles, peer-reviewed research, and six books, including the bestselling “Self Leadership” and the “One Minute Manager” with Ken Blanchard. Tens of thousands of people worldwide have learned from her ideas through training programs, such as the Situational Self Leadership and Optimal Motivation product lines. For more information, visit SusanFowler.com

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