Last week I started a four-part series on accountability.  This week, we look at the second step, following the principles from “The Oz Principle“, by Roger Connors, Tom Smith, and Craig Hickman.  “Own it” is possibly the hardest of the four steps, because accountability really begins to take place when your employees own the problems they see.

But what does it mean to “own it”?  As an employee, how do you own something that doesn’t belong to you?  And aren’t you overstepping your bounds if you take ownership of something that should belong to someone else?

What does it mean to “Own It”?

“Owning” a problem means that you take responsibility for the situation and the outcomes.  It is scary to take ownership.  This is accountability at it most basic level.  Let’s first look at the concept of owning anything.  Let’s consider your car for example.  When you own your car, what does that include?  Obviously, there is the upside.  The chance to drive the car you want, when you want.  You get to pick the options you want, the color, the style.  But it also comes with responsibilities.  You have to first pay for it.  You have to pay taxes on it.  And, you have to insure it.  You also have to have a license.  And you have to maintain it.  You’re responsible for changing the oil and repairing it when it gets damaged in an accident.

So, ownership brings with it positives and negatives.  On the upside, you have a level of control and get to reap the benefits.  On the downside, you are responsible for the costs associated with it.  And if you don’t take care of it (changing the oil and driving safely), you will be responsible for that side of the equation as well.

Owning a problem is much like this.  You get to define the problem, decide the best course of action, and lead the charge to solving it.  And, assuming all goes well, you get the glory of solving the problem once it is resolved.  But, on the other hand, you have to deal with the complaints, naysayers, and naggers as you seek out the solution.  If you are trying to solve a problem that impacts your customers, then you are likely under a lot of pressure from sales, account managers and your CEO.  All of this stress can wear out a person.  So there better be an upside.

What happens when no one owns it?

I have seen happen far too many times.  In my previous blog, I told about three stories where team members chose to ignore problems around them.  Now let me share an example where team members chose not to own their problem.

Pass the buck

Recently I was working with a client where there was a clear lack of ownership of a particular issue.  Over the past couple of years, three of the company’s leaders had held responsibility for this particular program.  None of them had experienced success with it.  After a period of frustration and lack of improvement, they pawned it off on someone else.  

At the time I got involved, the problem had been passed off to a consultant.  This consultant, who was getting paid a fairly significant retainer, was plugging away at it.  But he still had no desire to actually fix the problem.  And, as long as it wasn’t too much of a headache, he was willing to continue to get paid for very little results.  Only when the project reached a level of work that negatively impacted him did he suddenly want to pass it along to the next “victim”.

That’s where I came in.  I worked with him and others who had held the responsibility before.  We documented the process and its associated problems.  Then we took it, along with some potential solutions, to the CEO.  Only then did the issue get the attention it deserved, and did the team unify around a potential solution that would benefit the organization.  Finally, someone was able to own it, and bring it to resolution.

Why don’t we “own it”?

There are a few different reasons that when we are faced with a problem, we don’t want to own it.  Here are my top 3:

  1. Owning it means I will get stuck with it (forever).  Solving a problem is okay. Being stuck with the problem for the long term is scary and certainly causes us to pause before stepping forward.
  2. It means taking a risk.  If we truly own the problem, we own the risk as well.  When we solve the problem, we are a hero.  If we don’t, then we are the goat.  
  3. Others will bail.  I have seen this many times.  You are with a team; you acknowledge that there is a problem.  At first, you are all in there together.  Then you volunteer to take responsibility and look around…. and no one is there.  This one has bitten me several times.

Creating an Ownership Environment

In order to build accountablity, you have to build an environment where it is safe to “own it”.  I like to start with this simple little story:

The Dog Poop Initiative

One of my favorite examples of this is in a simple little book called “The Dog Poop Initiative“.  I have recommended this book to many of my clients.  If they are having issues getting their employees to “own it”, I start with this book.  It’s a simple fable, told in comic book form.  The author tells the story of kids and adults at a soccer field, all ignoring the pile of dog poop left on the field.  It’s fun, it’s humorous, and it gets to the point.  I strongly encourage it.

Allowing Your Team to Own It

So how do you promote an ownership culture?  Here are a few suggestions:

  • Reward those who step up and take the risk.  When a team member takes the risk to own and solve a problem, don’t punish them if it doesn’t work out perfectly.  Look for ways to recognize and reward those willing to take ownership.
  • Provide the necessary resources.  Once I stepped up to take on a huge issue for an employer.  I knew it was a risk, but I didn’t have much of a choice.  So I used the leverage I had to ask for the team and resources I needed to solve the problem.  My leadership supported me and gave me everything I asked for.  (And, yes, we solved the problem).
  • Hold other team members accountable.  If a team member steps up to own a problem, make sure he or she is not left “holding the bag”.  As I mentioned, I have seen others try to bail out of the situation when given the chance.  Don’t let them get away with it.
  • Accept incremental improvements.  I have seen this happen many times.  A leader steps up and makes a difference with an issue.  Perhaps they don’t solve the problem completely, but they “move the needle”.  That’s okay!  Celebrate incremental improvements!  

Finally, most important of all, don’t punish failure.  If a person steps up to take the risk, don’t punish them if they aren’t able to solve the problem.  And even more so, encourage them to continue taking risks.  

Take Steps Now to Build Ownership

Once you’ve tackled the first stage of accountability, seeing it, it’s time to tackle stage two.  Empowering and encouraging your employees to “own it”.  A healthy culture of accountability is needed for your organization to promote ownership.  Consider the tips above.  And, if interested, contact me at or call/text to 502-724-0430.