how to get people to take more ownership over their work … so that you’re not in charge of every damn thing

Managers often complain that they wish their staff members would take more ownership over their realms so that the burden of thinking and planning and spotting potential problems didn’t all fall to them, the managers … while simultaneously doing things that pretty much guarantee that will never happen.

If you want people to take more ownership over their work, you need to manage them with that in mind. That means:

1. Make sure that you’ve delegated real responsibility and meaningful goals. Ownership is really about owning the full weight of a responsibility – being the person to obsess over how to make something successful, spot problems, devise solutions, and be accountable for its results. This won’t happen, though, if you use team members as “helpers” to you, rather than giving them real responsibility for meaningful chunks of work. Rather than delegating activities (“talk to the client about X”), delegate outcomes (“you’re in charge of making sure the client fully understands the implications of X and feels good about how we’re moving forward”). That will give your people more leeway to be creative in finding the best way to get something done and instill a sense of ownership for the result, not just the action.

2. Don’t jump in and take over when you see a work not going as planned. It can be very tempting to do this so that you can just get the project fixed and back on track, but if you do, you’ll be undermining your efforts to get people to take more ownership. Instead, talk with the staff member about what needs to change and then ask her to make those changes. Otherwise, in the future she’ll be more likely to see you as the main “owner” rather than herself. Similarly…

3. Make a habit of asking, “What do you think we should do?” When you’re talking with a staff member about a possible problem or obstacle, or even just when batting around different options for a project or approach, make a point of asking for the person’s thoughts. And ideally, do this before you share your own thoughts, since otherwise people are likely to be swayed by the extra weight that your words carry as the boss.

4. Make feedback a conversation, not a one-way pronouncement. When you talk to your staff member about what went well on a project and what could have gone better, make sure that it’s a two-way conversation – not you just making pronouncements from on high. So in addition to sharing your own feedback, ask how your staff member thinks things went and what lessons she’ll take away from it. You want to reinforce that part of her role is to be thinking about this and incorporating any takeaways into her work in the future, not just executing and moving on.

I originally published this at Intuit QuickBase’s blog.

{ 39 comments… read them below }

  1. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

    #1, the “real ownership” piece, is so crucial. I always use the example of cleaning the kitchen: Your job is to ensure that the counters are clean, not just to wipe the counters. Say you wipe the counters and they are still stained – then your job is not done. You have to figure out and then do whatever, in addition to wiping the counters, is needed to make the counters clean.

    1. Noah*

      I use this same example when I talk about duty to follow a procedure versus duty to produce an outcome.

  2. qtipqueen*

    I wish I could send this to my boss. She is overwhelmed, but gives busywork out. If you ask a question, she just does it herself. From an employee perspective, it is very difficult to feel any ownershop when my efforts to help are dismissed. Help me help you here boss!!

    1. BBBizAnalyst*

      This is my boss. He tends to be a gatekeeper on a lot and only loops you in on menial tasks. It’s frustrating but I’m sticking it out…

      Can’t take ownership on items if you’re left out of critical components of your own job.

    2. TootsNYC*

      I have really had to discipline myself w/ the team at this job. When I came in, they’d been working without a department head for a long time; I’d been at a place where I was pretty much it. I have a big “helpful!” gene, and my DH does as well, but he default to just doing stuff for you, so he was setting an example I picked up.

      I really had to just say, “OK, yours to do,” and just walk away. Trying to dip in and be helpful was just demoralizing and frustrating and insulting my excellent staff.

      I’ve also found that it’s good to start talking through the decisions you make so that your staff can “channel” you later with better confidence (from both sides).

      1. MommaTRex*

        Remember that walking away is often the REAL help in that you are teaching them to do it on their own. I am also a “helper” and I need to channel that helper instinct more into “mentoring” and less into “let me take care of that for you.”

  3. Diane C.*

    This read came at an opportune time for me as I prepare for a new group of Summer Interns.
    Any tips for that last point? (Making feedback a conversation) I often find when I ask “How are things going?” Or “How did that go for you?” I invariably get, “Fine” or “Good.” Even if I know things went disastrously. I can’t tell if it is a lack of self awareness or a reluctance to admit challenges. Any thoughts on how to get the intern to be more honest and assessing so that the feedback can indeed be a conversation?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Too open-ended! Be more specific: Tell me your thoughts on how X went. What went well with it, and what could you have done differently to get better results? …. I thought Y about Z. What’s your take on that? … etc.

    2. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

      You also might want to consider sending questions like that in writing before the meeting. I’m aware that I’m not great at reflecting and responding on my feet; I need time to consider the question on my own.

      This needn’t be a big time suck – just a standing request that your staff bring their reflections about how a project went, what you want to replicate, and what you want to change to every post-project conversation.

      1. Collingwood21*

        +1 I’m also bad at answering these questions without reflecting time – it produces a “rabbit in headlights” effect and my brain can only dredge up the word “fine”. Give me a little time and space to consider my answer before sharing it and you will get a lot more sense out of me!

        1. MommaTRex*

          Yes, this!! And I even consider myself someone who speaks out easily, but when the question is asked out of nowhere, the usual response is whatever word was closest to my mouth.
          “Good.” “Fine.” “OK.” “Not bad.”

    3. auntie_cipation*

      I’ve also seen used successfully a review/debrief approach that focuses on What Worked/What Didn’t Work. It seems like if asked to give a one-word summary of an experience, no one wants to use a negative-sounding word. But if you ask them what worked? what didn’t work? it kind of gives permission for there to be actual answers to each of those questions. It sets the context for constructive criticism and no one feels like they will be perceived as whining or wimpy. It also makes it super easy to identify what things to do again next time, and what things to take a different tack with.

  4. Mike C.*

    One thing I’d add is that in addition to delegating real responsibility, you need to ensure they also receive the authority to get the task done as well as access to the proper resources. There’s nothing worse than being told to get something done and being hamstrung because avoidable obstacles stand in your way.

    1. misspiggy*

      …or, at least let people know they’re not expected to do a perfect job if there are huge barriers and tiny resources.

    2. Sibley*

      yes. And when things do come up, be available! The best manager I’ve ever had does it perfectly. She checks in, asks questions, and discusses rather than dictates. If I have any questions, am unsure, or need backup, she’s available.

    3. De Minimis*

      Huge problem for me at my current job…”I want you to be responsible for X, but won’t give you the information on how to log in and obtain what you need to do it.”

    4. Not the Droid You are Looking For*

      you need to ensure they also receive the authority to get the task done as well as access to the proper resources

      The best thing I learned to say as a Manager is, “Sansa is handling X, you should follow-up with her” or “Jon is actually the lead on Y, have you asked him?” And when people come back to me and say, “Arya is doing ___ on the ABX project, and I think we should do XYZ” I have learned to say, “Have you spoken to Arya?”

    5. Feo Takahari*

      Ugh, that reminds me of when I worked for a college dining hall. Each function of our invoice processing program was locked for each user by default, and only two people had authorization to unlock specific functions for specific users. In theory, this was supposed to keep people from messing with important or confidential information that had nothing to do with their jobs. In practice, it was a headache every time I needed to contact one of those people to get a new function unlocked. (One time, a bug in the system locked one of those people out of the authorization function, and the other one couldn’t be bothered to do anything because he was retiring in three months anyway. That was a miserable three months.)

  5. Florida*

    I love the part about asking, “What do you think we should do?” I had two bosses early in my career who were great at this. It didn’t take me long to realize that they weren’t going to solve my problems for me, and I needed to think things through before I went to them. I didn’t always have the best solutions (I was young and very green), but I always had some solution as a starting point for discussion.

    Also, when an employee says he doesn’t know what to do, figure out if it is because he hasn’t thought it through, or because he’s thought it through and doesn’t have a solution. One is laziness, the other is lack of knowledge or maybe creativity. Those two situations need to be dealt with differently.

    1. JaneB*

      Yeah, my PhD supervisor VERY quickly trained me out of saying just “I don’t know” – I was expected to at least turn up with “It can’t be A, B or C, because of this, and I tried D and that didn’t work, so what do you suggest I try now?”

      1. MommaTRex*

        I had a terrible, horrible boss many years ago. But this was the one thing I give him credit for doing well – making us come up with possible answers or at least describing what we had done that had failed. It helped us learn for ourselves better, and probably also kept us from asking questions where the answer was readily available if we just looked for it.

      2. MommaTRex*

        I also had a fantastic boss who often used the phrase “Make it right!” (similar to Picard’s “Make it so!”); it was his way of saying, “you can’t sweep the problem under the rug, but you’re on the right track and I trust you to see it through.”

  6. Jillociraptor*

    This is timely! I’ve been reflecting on the things that aren’t going so great at my newish job (of less than a year) versus my old job, and this is the big thing. I have a super capable and conscientious boss, but because of how capable she is of handling everything I work on, I’m having trouble finding my place. We’ve had a couple of frustrating conversations lately as I tried to clarify whether she wanted me to execute and check back with her for direction, or really own and drive a project to completion. While she’s very patient and supportive, it’s frustrating to either have my plans shot down because she only really wanted execution support, or to feel embarrassed or behind the 8-ball that I wasn’t taking enough responsibility because she was assuming I was owning the direction for the project.

    Many employees really need and value having personal ownership over work. This requires a sometimes uncomfortable level of letting go of your vision of a project. It maybe is the case that you could do it better, but that doesn’t mean that it’s better that you do it. It can create a vicious cycle where as a manager you have to own more and more of the work, while your employees have less and less context to grow from.

  7. Golden Yeti*

    I’m having the inverse problem: a manager who is supposed to be handling things is really not. And lower-level employees have to clean up the resulting messes. If it were just big, complex projects that were going awry, it’d be more understandable, but this is dropping the ball even on simple things–and it’s been like this for several months. I’ve read the article on how to help incompetent managers, but I’m starting to wonder if this one is beyond that point.

  8. Spunky Brewster*

    My manager needs to read this, especially the part about ownership. Before she came, I had lots more autonomy in my job. I mentioned to Grandboss that I wasn’t being fully utilized and she agreed. Sigh.

  9. Chaordic One*

    OTOH, we end up with people like the employee (described a couple of days ago in an email to Alison) who was overwhelmed with her work but got upset when her supervisor redistributed it. Well, at least she was taking ownership of it.

    If it isn’t one thing…

  10. TheBeetsMotel*

    These are all excellent points. Having seen my boss literally snatch work out of people’s hands because they HAVE to be in control of everything, I wish I could make them understand how frustrating and demoralizing this is.

    Also, an hour later, to hear mutterings about “having to do everything around here”… hmmm.

  11. MommaTRex*

    I am the boss of nobody, but I need to follow all of this advice! I’m in a senior position, and I am given a lot of responsibility for taking on new stuff because I’m good at figuring out what to do when no one knows how to do a thing because it has never been done. My problem is in eventually giving away these things. I need to let others own the work, let them change it as they need to, and most importantly, I need to let them mess up a little bit! People often ask me how I know how to do the things right . . . often it is because I made a mistake and had to figure out how to fix it. It is a good learning tool when done correctly.

    I definitely need to ask the “what do you think you should do” question more often, too. Help people figure out how to figure out what do. I complain a lot about people I call “click OKers” (people who need the specific instruction of “click OK” and can’t proceed without it). I use this question with them: when they ask “Should I click OK?” my response is often “What do you think? If you think it is OK, then click it. If you think it is not OK, click Cancel.” But I need to use that when I am helping other people troubleshoot problems. As is “Where do you think we could go look for an answer?” or “How could we compare that to another situation that is working?” or even “How could we go about testing our theory about the root cause?”

    I really need to post this article somewhere I can see it more often. I also need to follow my own advice better!

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