Lack of Ownership at Work: Encouraging Employee Growth

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Great Game of Business" by Jack Stack and Bo Burlingham. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do your employees lack ownership at work? Why is employee ownership important?

In The Great Game of Business, Jack Stack and Bo Burlingham propose that the best and most efficient way to create a successful business is by encouraging employees to take ownership. If an employee sees the company as theirs, they’ll feel a sense of freedom at work.

Let’s look at how to overcome a lack of ownership at work so your employees can thrive.

Defining the Two Keys to Employee Ownership

Overcoming a lack of ownership at work is crucial to fostering a successful business and pushing for autonomy in the workplace. According to Stack and Burlingham, the keys to ownership are accessibility and engagement.

We’re defining accessibility—which the authors call education—as employees having enough information to fully understand how their company operates. In fact, Stack and Burlingham maintain that every employee should have as much information about the company and its operations as upper management since employees can only be effective team members when they fully understand the company.

(Shortform note: Modern technology makes encouraging accessibility easier, as computers can track, analyze, and share data and other information quickly. However, many companies don’t use their technology effectively, either because they don’t understand how to or because they don’t think their company aligns with a technology-focused approach. Business experts explain that with some creativity and effort—such as installing computers and training employees how to use them—all companies can benefit from the speed and accessibility technology provides.)

Engagement—which we’re defining as employees being active and interested at work—is equally important, the authors say. Engaged employees will care more about the company’s success if they feel like they have the freedom to work in the way that best suits them. They’ll use the information you’ve given them to help the company succeed. On the other hand, unengaged employees may have the information they need to succeed, but they’ll be less likely to use it.

(Shortform note: Another way to define engagement is employees having goals and values that align with those of the company. These employees will work harder to advance the company because doing so advances their goals and fits their values. Stack and Burlingham’s definition of engagement arguably encompasses this one, as aligning employees’ goals and values with the company’s could be considered a method of encouraging employees to be active and interested at work.)

Barriers to Encouraging Ownership

Many companies don’t encourage ownership, despite its importance to maintaining a successful business. Stack and Burlingham explain that there are several reasons for this hesitance:

Barrier #1: Misplaced Focus

Some companies don’t encourage ownership because they focus too much on having fun, the authors explain. While encouraging employee morale is important, overemphasizing it can distract employees from the real goal of creating a successful business.

(Shortform note: In his book Delivering Happiness, Tony Hsieh disagrees with this viewpoint, arguing that you can’t overemphasize employee morale and happiness. Focusing on making employees happy helps companies because happy employees are more focused, productive, and innovative. They want to be a part of the company that’s making them happy and are willing to work hard to help that company succeed.)

Barrier #2: Lack of Trust

According to Stack and Burlingham, many companies don’t encourage ownership or autonomy in the workplace because they don’t trust their employees. Specifically, many managers believe their employees don’t care about the company and do as little work as possible. As a result, these managers stop sharing accurate information about orders, deadlines, and other business operations with their subordinates. Instead, they say whatever they think is necessary to motivate employees to get their tasks done—whether it’s true or not. This reduces employees’ accessibility, in turn preventing them from developing ownership.

This lack of trust can become a self-fulfilling prophecy: Managers share misinformation, reducing accessibility and making it difficult for employees to develop a sense of ownership. In turn, this lack of ownership means employees are less invested in the company’s success and less motivated to work hard. Managers are then even less likely to share accurate information, and the cycle continues. 

For example, let’s say Sam is the manufacturing manager at a car company. He needs five cars shipped out by Friday, but he’s afraid that if he’s honest with his employees about his requirements, they’ll drag their heels and won’t complete the cars on time. Instead, he exaggerates and says he needs eight cars, hoping that at least five shipments will be completed on time. Due to Sam’s lie, his employees never know which production targets are accurate and can’t develop a sense of ownership. As a result, they don’t care as much about the company’s success or working hard, and their productivity decreases, reinforcing Sam’s low expectations of them.

Barrier #3: The Myth of Omniscience

Finally, some managers don’t encourage ownership because they think being accessible and sharing information will ruin their reputations. They worry that knowledgeable employees will be able to recognize gaps in the knowledge that they (the manager) share and that these employees will then lose respect for them. According to the authors, this fear stems from the myth that managers should have solutions to every problem and answers to every question. As a result, the managers discourage accessibility so no one can identify their shortcomings.

Stack and Burlingham maintain that this attempt to appear omniscient is harmful to companies as a whole. Managers who refuse to reveal gaps in their knowledge will never fill those gaps, making it more likely for them to make mistakes and poor decisions. Meanwhile, employees will struggle to take ownership because they don’t have enough information from their reticent managers.

Instead, the authors recommend creating an environment where everyone—including managers—can ask for help and learn from each other without fear.

Lack of Ownership at Work: Encouraging Employee Growth

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Here's what you'll find in our full The Great Game of Business summary:

  • The best and most efficient way to create a successful business
  • Why employees should see the company as theirs rather than just somewhere they work
  • The principles of fostering employee ownership

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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