Creating a culture of ownership

By Katina Cremona

How often have you had these thoughts or heard your colleagues say, ‘No-one seems to want to take responsibility around here’, or ‘There’s not enough accountability for results’, or ‘I’m sick of people passing the buck and finding excuses for not performing their job properly’?

We can all imagine how much more effective and easy it would be to be part of an organisation (or a world for that matter) where people took full responsibility for their behaviour and performance but, unfortunately, we have more likely experienced many situations where this is the exception.

How can we create a culture of ownership in our organisations? By a culture of ownership, I refer to people taking responsibility for their results and not blaming outside circumstances for their under performance. I refer to a culture where people initiate and are proactive about their work projects, ideas for improvement and their working relationships. People face problems and challenges early rather than hope they go away or kid themselves that they’ll deal with them later. Finally, a culture of ownership is when people are comfortable with and open to receiving and giving feedback.

Following are some questions about yourself and your organisation in relation to creating a more accountable culture for you to reflect on. Even though this paper emphasises the importance of individual functioning and behaviour, the questions are grouped under a four levels framework that is very helpful in ensuring a more systemic approach to change rather than focusing on one area or part of a wider context.

Individual level – your emotions, thoughts, assumptions and behaviour
How much of a role model are you for taking responsibility? How often do your colleagues hear you openly asking for feedback or admitting that you made a mistake? Do they see you ‘push back’ rather than complain about your boss and your powerlessness about the way things are done in your organisation? If you are not seen demonstrating these kinds of behaviours, it is less likely that you will foster a culture around you that is very different from the one already in place. The way you function contributes to the prevailing culture.

Are your psychological needs maintaining a culture of dependency? Many leaders and managers say they want people to be more accountable but don’t see how much they are creating the opposite kind of behaviour. If you have a strong investment in being in control, taking credit for your team’s achievements or knowing all the answers, then you may inadvertently be reinforcing a culture of less ownership for your people. In some ways, increased ownership from your reports leaves you more in the background. How well you manage your ambition, recognition or control needs will determine how comfortable you will be with a lesser profile.

How do you define your role in relation to your reports? I once coached a senior manager as part of an organisation-wide cultural change program to raise accountability. Initially he struggled with the changes required of him, complaining that he was employed to know the answers and what needed to be done. He said, ‘If I don’t give them the answers then what am I being paid for?’. He began to feel frustrated as he slowly came to the realisation that his staff relied on him for answers so much that they had stopped trying to work out even simple things for themselves. He slowly began to see his role differently: from a problem-fixer to a coach who helps his staff to find the answers for themselves. He could see that this new approach led to stronger accountability and results and he enjoyed his work even more than before.

How much of your management style is passed down from your boss? You may be acting similarly to your boss (and former bosses) because that is what you have been experiencing for a long time. It may be useful to stop and reflect on how you might be passing ‘bad habits’ down the line, for example, by the language you use or the way you relate to your reports. If you often feel negative or defeated or confused after an interaction with your boss, are you creating a parallel of that dynamic with your reports?

Interpersonal level – how you interact and communicate with others
How clearly do you communicate expectations to others? It is amazing the number of managers I’ve spoken to who expect people to ‘read their mind’ about what result they want in relation to a task or project. They then don’t get the performance they expect and use this to justify why the person can’t be trusted in the first place. It becomes a vicious cycle. Specific expectations that need to be clearly communicated, according to Stephen Covey (1989), include the parameters or boundaries (budget, time, resources, etc) and accountabilities of any given project. Don’t forget the importance of checking the person’s understanding of what they think you expect!

How much do you involve people’s contributions? It is hard to ‘own’ or be responsible for something if we’re not really involved in it. Just telling people what to do and then expecting them to take full ownership is already setting up for failure in many cases. Jacques (1956) came to the conclusion that the level of responsibility a person experiences in a job is related solely to the level of discretion they are given, not the prescribed aspects of the job. A good rule of thumb is to be absolutely clear about the result expected but flexible about the process of how you expect people to get there.

How sure are you of people’s skills or abilities to adequately complete their work? An ongoing aspect of a manager’s role is to constantly ascertain people’s development needs and strengths, i.e., when to challenge them, when something is too much of a stretch etc. In an ideal world, people would tell us if they think they are not capable of completing a task competently, but in many cases people are more likely to nod and try to please or deliver rather than admit what might be interpreted as a shortcoming.

How much support and coaching do you offer people along the way? Having accountable and responsible staff doesn’t mean leaving them completely to their own devices. Coaching and supporting them is a critical aspect of creating accountability and it’s important to find out what each person’s individual needs are in these areas.

How consistent are you in reviewing people’s performance at the end of a task? A friend once told me that whenever he came home from an outing his father would ask, ‘So, son, what did you learn?’. My friend learnt from a young age to be responsible and comfortable with mistakes. He has passed this onto his children too. If you consistently review people’s performance with this kind of approach, people are more likely to start to review their own performance independently of a formal review. They learn to self assess and continue developing their skills and abilities. Other useful questions are, ‘When did things start to go wrong?’; ‘What would you do differently?’; ‘What stopped you from taking action?’ and ‘How much responsibility are you taking for this?’.

How often do you ‘tell’ or ‘boss’ people into performing? One of the most familiar interactions I hear in the workplace (and in homes) when someone does not perform as expected is when their boss says, ‘You know you’re supposed to…’ or ‘From now on, you’d better…’ or ‘This is not good enough, I expect…’ Then the person nods and seemingly agrees that they will never transgress again and then a few days or weeks later, the same conversation ensues. Telling or bossing or getting into this kind of ‘manager’ mode mostly doesn’t work as far as encouraging real ownership in people yet we do it time and time again. It especially doesn’t work when the person has taken no ownership for the issue in the first place. They then go through the motions of ‘agreeing’ with you but have no buy-in to the issue.

A manager I recently coached had been asking one of her reports for nearly two years to complete a particular document. Every time the manager asked or warned or reprimanded, her report would convincingly tell her that it would be on her desk the next morning. It was only when the manager asked the person some open questions (questions that foster a thoughtful response from the other person rather than a mechanical one-word response like ‘yes’ or ‘no’) that clearly put the onus and responsibility onto her report that the document was finally completed. This manager felt like magic had happened but she simply had stopped doing all the work and had given the ownership to this person. This was achieved by asking her report how much responsibility he was taking for getting the document finished, what was stopping him from getting it done, what were the consequences of not doing it, etc. The manager had stopped behaving in ways that fostered minimal accountability.

Team level – considering the context of a team as a whole, not just individuals
How aware are you of the different role each team member plays? It is useful to think of team dynamics when an individual or individuals seem to be under performing. Our behaviour does not take place in isolation from a wider context and team members often act in ways that express the different aspects of a team as a whole. Sometimes a team member may unconsciously take on a particular role in a team because other team members are not taking responsibility for that particular role. The individual may then be perceived as a troublemaker, or a complainer, or the only ‘good’ one, when they are actually expressing something on behalf of the whole team. For example, I have often experienced a team member who appears to be highly questioning and challenging while other team members seem to be content with the status quo. The more quiet the other team members are, the more questioning the one team member becomes, to the point of behaving out of proportion to the actual situation. However, once this dynamic is explained to teams, other team members start to voice their concerns and each member then takes some responsibility rather than one person carrying it for everyone.
Another pertinent example is of a senior team with which I worked, where one team member was seen as the ‘toe cruncher’ or confrontational one. However, this team (and organisation) had a strong culture of not giving direct feedback to each other (or to their reports) and this particular team member was carrying the role of demanding accountability. His behaviour was seen as being out of proportion because his fellow team members were not taking any responsibility in this area.

What sort of team climate have you developed? A team climate where people feel free to disagree, offer suggestions that are taken seriously and can participate in important decisions is more likely to lead to accountability than a team environment where very little interaction takes place. Often the kinds of meetings these latter types of teams have are where information is downloaded and little time is spent in brainstorming and discussing ideas and new directions. People are often uninvolved and dread the weekly meeting where they go through the motions of participating.

When have you felt the most responsible and accountable for the work you were doing? Reflecting on what the situation was and what the circumstances were that made it possible for you to feel a high level of ownership for the work you were doing may provide some interesting insights into what you could be doing more of now.

Organisation level – organisational systems, processes and structure
How compatible are your HR systems, processes and organisational structure with a culture of accountability? There needs to be consistency across many aspects of an organisation that relate to accountability. One example is where several people are accountable for a result rather than the accountability resting with one person. This can sabotage any efforts to create a culture of ownership.

Isabel Menzies (1960) wrote a famous paper of her research concerning a change program with which she was involved in a hospital in the UK. Among many findings made during the initial diagnostic phase, she discovered that when any decision was made about patients, accountability for these decisions was reduced by processes involving checks, counterchecks and the postponement of actions for as long as possible. This applied not only to decisions with serious consequences but also to those where the implications were very slight. Menzies also found that there was no clarity of either roles or who was responsible for what.

At the risk of simplifying her paper about an organisation with complex issues and dynamics, it is fair to say that Menzies discovered many areas in which the hospital’s processes and personnel were unwittingly causing the very problems they wanted help with. It is interesting to note that, although senior staff seriously discussed proposals for re-structuring with her, they did not proceed with the plans. The changes required to address the issues they identified seemed perhaps too difficult or confronting.

It is sobering to keep this in mind the next time we complain about the way things are done. Two good questions to ask are ‘How am I creating or maintaining this problem?’ and ‘What am I willing to do to change it?’. It is very useful to think of how much responsibility we have for situations and for changing them. If we all took at least half the responsibility, how different things might be!

Covey, S.R. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989.
Jacques, E. Measurement of responsibility: a study of work, payment, and individual capacity. London: Tavistock Publications, 1956.
Menzies, I.E.P. Social systems as a defence against anxiety: an empirical study of the nursing service of a general hospital. London: The Tavistock Institute of Human Relations, 1960.

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