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What to do when people aren’t taking ownership at work

Tackling the jobsworths

taking ownership

Frustrated by employees who aren’t taking ownership of or responsibility for the work they do?

Those who go home early, leaving a task incomplete? Who seem oblivious to the impact their dismissive manner has on customers? Who don’t seem bothered by the litany of mistakes they make?

Many of those who responded to my survey said this lack of ownership amongst employees was a real problem. Particularly for those running small businesses where everyone needs to pull their weight and where a little extra effort goes a long way.

But jobsworths can be an intransigent bunch. So how can we encourage our people to take more ownership of and responsibility for the work they do?

Taking ownership isn’t just a matter of individual enthusiasm or competence. It’s also about good leadership, effective communication, trust and support.

Here are my tips to helping your team take more ownership of their work.

First of all, what do we mean by ‘taking ownership’? For me, it’s about:

  • taking full responsibility for your duties
  • delivering those duties on time and up to spec
  • recognising the impact your actions have on your colleagues, the customer experience and the reputation of the organisation
  • communicating effectively and working with others to ensure the successful delivery of a task or project
  • going the extra mile to ensure a customer is happy or financial goals are met
  • admitting to and addressing any mistakes you make
  • looking beyond the remits of your job description to consider the bigger picture that the organisation operates within
  • showing a little passion for your work and for the business.

There are a number of reasons why someone might not be demonstrating the sort of ownership you expect from your employees. But, first up, a little reality check.

Are your expectations too high?

People not taking ownership can be especially frustrating for small business owners. You want people to share your passion and put in the same amount of effort and energy as you do.

But, I’m afraid, that’s simply not realistic.

You may well eat, drink and sleep your business, dedicated to making it a success. But why should your employees be so dedicated? It’s like the difference between renting and owning your own home. When you rent your home, there’s only so far you’ll go in terms of improving and investing in the property.

But while you can’t make everyone as invested as you, you can take steps to help them raise their game. Those steps will depend on the reasons behind the lack of ownership.

There are four main reasons why people may not be taking the level of ownership you’d like:

1. They’re not interested in taking ownership

For some people life outside work is what engages them and a job is just that, a job.

If they’re delivering work to an acceptable standard, then it doesn’t really matter if they’re not interested in it. Many roles don’t require people to exceed expectations, just deliver what’s needed.

If, however, they’re not delivering their job to the required standard, you need to be clear about what that required standard is. You may need to go as far as drawing up very explicit service level agreements. For instance, a customer complaint must be responded to within 24 hours.

Tangible measures will give them the clarity they need to deliver the level of service you require.

2. They don’t want to take ownership

Resistance in the workplace is a more pernicious problem and needs to be tackled straight away. If left to fester, it can quickly become toxic.

The employee may start undermining their colleagues, or activities, or initiatives. They might even become quite Machiavellian, employing devious or inappropriate behaviour to avoid doing what you need them to do. And this could have a really negative impact on customer relationships.

Again, clarity is key. Be really clear about the team’s objectives and what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. Get them to buy into those objectives. If they don’t, you might have to show them the door.

3. They don’t know they’re not taking ownership

Do your people know what taking ownership actually looks like? Maybe they think they’re performing well. Maybe they don’t realise they’re actually not doing what you’d expect them to do or how you’d want them to do it.

I do see this sort of ‘unconscious incompetence’ quite frequently and it stems from a lack of feedback. Basically, people need to know how they’re doing and how that compares to what the business needs them to do.

If this is the issue in your workplace you need to have a conversation about what is expected from them. How do they feel they’re performing and do they understand the impact of their behaviour on colleagues and customers? Perhaps they just don’t realise how their snail-like pace is creating a poor impression on customers, for example. Be clear about what good looks like in their role.

4. They don’t have the skills to take ownership

Perhaps people are doing their best but don’t quite have the skill set or personality attributes to deliver effectively.

For instance, perhaps they find difficult customers challenging. They try to help but don’t have the skills to deal with a complex and fraught situation.

They might be unaware of their lack of skill and just quietly struggle on, unable to identify why they can’t seem to get it.

The good news is that these soft skills can be developed. But they’ll need help to uncover what skills they’re missing.

Make sure you’re giving regular, clear feedback on people’s performance and provide opportunities for them to develop their skills. Perhaps some job shadowing might be in order.

Taking ownership means knowing what you’re taking ownership of

By expecting employees to take ownership, you’re asking them to do more than just what they’re told. But to do so, you need to be clear about the overall goals of the business. That way, when acting on their own initiative, they’ll know the principles they need to apply, meaning they can be more confident of making the right decision.

For instance, a customer advisor who knows that customer retention is the main priority for the business will use their initiative to make the right offer of compensation to a disgruntled customer. Whereas if revenue generation is the overall objective, they might make a different decision.

So remember – taking ownership isn’t just a matter of individual enthusiasm or competence. It’s also about good leadership, effective communication, trust and support.

What other tactics have you used to encourage employees to take more ownership in your business?

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