Why employees don’t take ownership

I recently had a conversation with a C-suite leader of a company that has 6,000+ employees who were implementing a significant organizational structure change to build in more accountability and ownership across 50 interconnected departments. The goal was to create an umbrella team who would be in charge of ensuring there was more transparency and communication between each department. This layer would aggregate and disseminate information, along with being the one point of reporting to upper management. On the surface, this may sound good, but it’s actually a terrible idea.

The core problem that existed wasn’t really communication, but rather behavior. When one department couldn’t do its job because another department was dragging its heels, it simply pointed the finger at the culprit. Of course, the organization wanted these departments to collaborate and communicate, instead of passing the buck. Installing a “mothership” layer seemed like a logical choice. Yet keep in mind, this layer didn’t have any of these department leaders reporting to them, nor influenced or impacted their performance reviews, compensation, or budgets.

However, another layer is just that – more bureaucracy and more bloat. While the layer may identify problems and make recommendations to departments A or B about how to resolve a stalemate, it doesn’t have any power to actually resolve it. And in many cases, these types of gaps between departments have more to do with infrastructure, internal processes, interpersonal issues, or more often – the wrong focus.

Why focus? Employees, or in this case department leaders, don’t take ownership of bigger issues (such as a process getting bogged down) because the focus is on the wrong thing. For example, department A might be deemed responsible for X and department B might be responsible for Y. X and Y impact and influence each other. Both departments work on their own activities and inherently blame the other department if they can’t accomplish X or Y. However, what each team should be both responsible for is Z. X and Y are only the tactical activities, initiatives, processes, or programs to achieve Z. Having the right focus – in other words, outcome – is where both departments should be incentivized, rewarded, and measured on.

We often mentally get tied up with the responsibilities and activities of a department, such as “sales teams” or “customer service”. We focus on the fact that sales teams need to make quotas, and customer service needs to efficiently resolve questions and issues. This is simply doing the day-to-day business – it’s not collaborative, and can be in certain cases, inherently at odds. For instance, one department might be responsible for maintaining stability and consistency while another is responsible for creating and implementing new ideas. One will naturally push back on the other.

However, when departments are incentivized and operate with a bigger, more strategic focus, the behavior changes. Going back to our C-Suite leader, if departments A and B are both responsible for delivering on shared goal Z, then the focus shifts from “my camp vs. your camp” to “our collective objective”. While we often want to add layers or insert one person to be responsible and accountable for making the proverbial machine run more effectively, we overlook why it’s not running effectively in the first place.

In sports, when a team is underperforming, the coach gets replaced. However, businesses are different. They aren’t a single team, even though we want to believe they are. They are multiple teams all playing in the same league and all trying to move to the top of the table. Smart business leaders understand to get everyone collaborating and rowing in the same direction, you need to have shared outcomes and a focus on the bigger picture, rather than adding another layer of management and bureaucrats.

Andrea Olsen
Andrea Olsen

About the Author

Andrea Belk Olson is a keynote speaker, author, differentiation strategist, behavioral scientist, and customer-centricity expert. As the CEO of Pragmadik, she helps organizations of all sizes, from small businesses to Fortune 500, and has served as an outside consultant for EY and McKinsey. Andrea is the author of three books, including her most recent, What To Ask: How To Learn What Customers Need but Don’t Tell You, released in June 2022.

She is a 4-time ADDY® award winner and host of the popular Customer Mission podcast. Her thoughts have been continually featured in news sources such as Chief Executive Magazine, Entrepreneur Magazine, Harvard Business Review, Rotman Magazine, World Economic Forum, and more. Andrea is a sought-after speaker at conferences and corporate events throughout the world. She is a visiting lecturer and startup coach at the University of Iowa, a TEDx presenter, and TEDx speaker coach. She is also an instructor at the University of Iowa Venture School.

More information is also available on www.pragmadik.com and www.andreabelkolson.com.

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