Taking ownership is a call to action from managers that doesn't always translate into clear action from employees. Why? Because taking ownership is an appeal for employees to take responsibility not just for their daily tasks but also for the outcomes of those tasks.

For example, sales employees are tasked with prospecting and making the call, but their performance is based on whether they make the sale. Taking ownership is about accountability for outcomes. 

Being accountable for the tasks and outcomes means that an employee can be doing everything they are instructed to do and still receive feedback from their manager about a lack of ownership. This is often why conversations about a lack of ownership transform into conversations about an employee's entitlement. Most employees believe they're ready for the next level when they've mastered execution, but managers believe employees are ready for the next level when they've demonstrated consistent results. 

In order for an employee to perform according to their manager's expectations, you need to identify whether your employee has the knowledge, skills, and attitude (KSA) necessary to do their job. Here are three questions that can help you identify which area is causing your employee to fall short:

  • Does your employee still require supervision for tasks that you'd like them to complete on their own? If yes, they lack organizational knowledge.

  • Does your employee struggle to achieve efficiency, quality, and accuracy when completing their task? If yes, they lack the appropriate level of skill.

  • Does your employee demonstrate a lack of willingness or low motivation or require additional incentive to complete their tasks? If yes, then they lack the necessary attitude. 

Addressing Organizational Knowledge

Organizational knowledge is the information associated with understanding and coordinating operational processes. When employees lack organizational knowledge, they don't feel confident in their execution and they require additional support or supervision. In this context, ownership is about encouraging employee independence. Encourage your employees to be more independent by:

  • Encouraging them to ask "What's the outcome you're looking for?" when they are confused or uncertain about how to measure the success of a process or activity   

  • Pointing employees to documented processes in training manuals, onboarding documents, or internal information sharing systems so they can find their answers to their questions instead of relying on you 

  • Providing opportunities for informal exchanges in informal communication networks like Slack or Instant Messenger so they can address uncertainties with their peers instead of you 

Addressing Inadequate Skills

Skills are the correct routines or behaviors employees need to complete their tasks and achieve an outcome. When employees lack the appropriate skills, they don't have the expertise to complete their tasks according to the required standard or within the desired timeframe. In this context, ownership is about proficiency. Encourage your employees to strengthen their proficiency by emphasizing continued learning. You can do this by:

  • Hiring a trainer who specializes in a skill the team needs to achieve results in their job  

  • Recommending coaches, courses, and certifications for individuals who need to strengthen their abilities in important skill areas 

  • Providing opportunities for your employees to practice a skill they need for their job and to receive feedback about how they performed the skill from you 

Addressing Nonproductive Attitudes

An attitude is the point of view necessary to complete a task or persist toward an outcome. When employees lack the correct attitude, they don't have the willingness to complete their tasks or desire to achieve the outcome. In this context, ownership is about incentive. Motivate your employees by: 

  • Sharing the advantages of new strategies or approaches when implementing changes. When employees are not fully bought into recommendations, they resist changing and that delays results. 

  • Creating consequences for nonperformance. Employees pay close attention to their colleagues, so if they notice that their colleagues aren't receiving consequences for not completing a task, then they'll receive the message that it doesn't matter if they don't complete the task too. 

  • Helping them understand the urgency. Prioritization is more of a personal than organizational process, so even when something is urgent to others, it can feel unimportant to employees who are balancing a range of other tasks. When placing a high-priority task on your employee's plate, ask them, "Will you be able to keep your current deadlines for your deliverables or will you need more time if you prioritize this?" 

Connecting KSAs to Outcomes

When managers couple their call to ownership with clear instructions that remedy a lack of knowledge, skills, and attitudes, then employees gain a better understanding of what influences the outcomes associated with their role. Employees take ownership when managers provide them with access to the organizational knowledge that supports autonomy, with resources to develop the skills that enable proficiency, and with incentives and understanding that foster the right attitude. 

When framed using this formula, your employees can see that taking ownership benefits not only the organization but also the individual.