Employees: Just Own It!

Getting employee buy-in is one thing, but getting to the next level of employee ownership requires an innate appreciation of job roles and a belief in the larger goals of the company..

Employee buy-in, in which you convince employees to make a desired change, such as transitioning to a new software system or a new workflow, is hard to attain. Even harder: developing employees who sincerely care about and “own” their job roles. They understand their responsibilities in the context of the long-term goals of the company, and feel they have a mission to deliver their contribution to those goals. Several Training Top 125 companies and experts in the field of employee development share their ideas for putting your workforce on the path to job role ownership.

Companies often speak of employee “buy-in,” but the ultimate goal is “ownership.” Contrary to popular use, these two terms are not synonymous, say Michael Houlihan and Bonnie Harvey, authors of “The Entrepreneurial Culture: 23 Ways to Engage and Empower Your People,” and the founders of The Barefoot Spirit consulting group. “The difference between employee ‘buy-in’ and ‘ownership’ is really the difference between understanding how to do the job and why the job exists. In both cases, the employee does the job, but with ‘ownership,’ the employee sees the bigger picture,” Houlihan and Harvey explain. “The ‘owner’ knows that the money comes from the customer (not from the company), knows the circuitous route the product or service must take from supply chain to distribution to the customer. And they know how they contribute to that process.”

The first step to achieving employee ownership may be creating an open company, in which information flows both from the top down and the bottom up. “Employee buy-in comes when an organization shares information with employees with the focus on what’s in it for the employees. The organization tells employees in a way that makes them see the value and benefit that the announcement, change, or information brings to them,” says Heather Henshall, PHR, Leadership & Management Training Specialist, Training Top 125er American Fidelity Assurance Company. “Cultivating a sense of employee ownership comes when an organization genuinely seeks the opinions and feedback of its employees. The key word here is ‘genuinely.’ It is one thing to go through the motions of soliciting opinions just to say you did it. It is a powerful thing to solicit opinions and feedback from employees, and use them to make a decision, especially if that decision affects employees’ jobs or daily work environment.” Henshall says American Fidelity makes a point of soliciting feedback from employees, and letting them know they want more than a one-way conversation. “American Fidelity Assurance Company’s culture is to seek opinions and feedback from our colleagues at every possible opportunity,” says Henshall. For example, she says that as the corporate headquarters moves into a new building, a design team of nominated employees from every floor is guiding the process.

Another way to encourage ownership is to avoid micromanaging. Henshall says employees sometimes are prevented from taking ownership of their job roles because their boss unintentionally is standing in their way. “Employees fail to take ownership of their job roles when the leader does not empower them to be an owner. A command-and-control manager wants every step done his or her way,” she says. “A leader defines the desired outcome with clear expectations and lets the employees determine how to get to the desired outcome. This leadership style results in the employees feeling positive about their contribution, and they will take ownership in their job because they do not fear failure.”

Dan Prosser, author of bestselling book “Thirteeners: Why Only 13 Percent of Companies Successfully Execute Their Strategy—and How Yours Can Be One of Them,” says many employees have become “employer-deaf,” thanks to topdown communication styles. “Grandiose pronouncements by managers, intended to create a new call to arms, are falling on deaf ears,” he says. “Employees have heard it before, and it’s still the same tune. Employees are tired of working in this scenario. As a result, they don’t do their best work.” Prosser says company culture should be conducive for managers to focus on three “relational” values:

  1. Cooperation
  2. Collaboration
  3. Co-creation

“To put these behaviors into action requires a shift in conversation from monologue, which is the core feature of the competitive individual (vertical), to dialogue (horizontal), which is the core feature of a relational value system,” he says.

Few things in the work world are worse than trying your best, achieving what you were tasked to achieve, and then finding that nobody noticed or appreciated what you did. Top 125er Allianz Life Insurance Company of North America created a multifaceted awards program to ensure that doesn’t happen. It does this through its Supporting Ongoing Achievement Recognition (SOAR) program, which gives employees an opportunity to recognize their peers. “In addition to monthly SOAR ceremonies, each September is dedicated to employees through SOAR Bi- Monthly,” says Learning Solutions Director Beth Davis-Salonek, PHR. “The month is celebrated with fun, education, and a red carpet celebration that honors employees and teams for their contributions to driving change, process improvements/costsaving ideas/projects, building and fostering relationships, and embodying the spirit of our culture.”

In addition, Davis-Salonek recommends what she calls “stay interviews.” These one-on-one meetings between manager and employee give the employee a chance to talk about how the company can best ensure he or she sticks around long term. “This is insightful for me as it allows me to get a true sense of what employees like about their job/ role, what they dislike, what motivates them, what is getting in the way of them being a success, and, most importantly, how to fully utilize their talents and gifts,” she says, adding that employees at the company understand their employer wants to develop their talents further. “Semi-annually, we hold Allianz Days, a dedicated month to focus on employee development, including building business acumen and professional skills development,” she says. “Topics are selected for these sessions from employee focus groups and survey results, along with topics aligned to business priorities.”

Allianz employees also receive support to further their education with tuition assistance. Davis-Salonek says that in 2014, 8 percent of Allianz Life employees took advantage of this program. “Employees also are encouraged to give back to the community and to celebrate diversity, and are allotted 16 hours every year to do so,” she notes.

BPI Group lets its employees know their ideas are welcomed, and that they possibly will be used to make improvements. “Employees need to know their ideas will be considered and potentially implemented. When they see this happen, it encourages them to do more and be more creative,” says Manager of Organization Transformation & People Anne- Marie Fort. “Employees need to feel like they have control and influence over the situation, and that their voices matter. When employees feel like every idea they offer hits a dead end, they’ll eventually stop offering them.”

Fort says it’s not enough to have a company that’s interested in employee ideas, but that each manager also has to be on board with the concept that employee ideas should be encouraged and used. “In a previous role, I had little autonomy and limited understanding of the larger purpose for my role due to a manager with a controlling style. This hindered my development of any deep mastery since I was given little opportunity to think creatively and explore new solutions on my own, and was seldom recognized for my efforts,” Fort says. “In contrast, another manager, to whom I reported after that experience, provided significant freedom and space for me to explore and implement new ideas. This manager provided support and encouragement and actively demonstrated her belief in my potential. Within a year, my responsibilities in the role expanded dramatically, and I was fully engaged in and owning my career once again.”

Fort recommends that Learning and Development professionals think about what employee ownership means specifically to their company. “What does an employee who fully ‘owns’ his or her role behave like? Depending on the industry, the size of the company, the culture, and the structure, employee ownership can look quite different,” she says. “You then need to clearly communicate this to employees, so they know what is expected of them.”


  • Understand the difference between employee buy-in and ownership. Employees who buy in know how, and are willing, to do their jobs. Employees who own their jobs appreciate why they’re doing it.
  • Rather than solely top-down communication, solicit and openly receive questions, ideas, and concerns from employees.
  • Take employee ideas seriously, and show how you’ve implemented some of these ideas.
  • Recognize achievement to show employees their efforts and accomplishments are appreciated.
  • Conduct “stay interviews” in which managers ask high-performing employees what they require to stay long term with the company.
  • Discourage micro-managing management styles. An overly controlled employee won’t take ownership.
Lorri Freifeld
Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.