Ownership Culture

Management want it … Management just want it to happen … Management want us to do it – phrases we should never, ever, hear! And yet, sadly, these phrases are all too common in organisations, and they are doing untold, unseen damage to the culture within those organisations.
But maybe they are so prevalent in our environments that we have lost sight of how damaging they really are! We no longer recognise the extent to which they:
Undermine engagement. When we are asked to do something without a proper explanation of the purpose and benefits – the reasons why – it is very difficult for us to take ownership for success. Let’s face it, without understanding ‘why’, we have no real idea of what success looks like, and this frustrates our initiative and ability to adapt our approach to bring about that success in our particular circumstances.
Devalue our staff. As a result, our ideas, our creativity, our resourcefulness are impotent. We are devalued by an approach which expects us to simply enact what has been given to us, and denies our intelligence and insight into how it might be interpreted to add value to our local situation and our work.
Demotivate progress. And so, when we encounter obstacles, resistance, or unforeseen circumstances, as we inevitably will, we stop! And not simply due to a lack of motivation, but because the reasoning that would empower us to overcome those obstacles is not available to us. As a result, what might have been a good idea at the outset fails, and those around it become cynical and demotivated about the motives of said ‘management’
Obscure opportunities for learning. Sadly though we as management will largely be unaware of this. We may mistake the lack of questioning as to ‘why’ for enthusiasm or understanding, and we may assume that our plans are being successfully cascaded down through the organisation (particularly if we are busy – and who isn’t?) As a result, we may be oblivious to the true situation below us, and our need to hone and develop our leadership skills of explanation, inspiration and authenticity.
Blur our vision. And we fail to recognise that our decisions and actions are becoming separated in the minds of our people from the vision and purpose we have for the organisation. And that the resulting loss of clarity, congruence and cohesion is making it more difficult for our people to understand and believe passionately in what the organisation is trying to do.
Waste energy and opportunity. As a result, our understanding of our local departmental and regional goals tend to lose the unifying rationale of a cohesive overarching purpose, and local priorities can sometimes end up out of sync, and even in tension with each other, leading to delays, unresolved questions, and even politics.
Create inertia. These can bind up the organisation and act against it fluidly adapting and evolving in an agile manner. ‘Management want it’ explanations not only make top-down change ineffective, they undermine the rationale, understanding and insight that would otherwise empower and align bottom-up and cross-functional change.
The damage done is far from confined to the initiative on which it is used, or indeed to just initiatives in general. Left unchallenged, it impacts the very culture and esprit de corps of the organisation. It says “we don’t matter enough to know“. It undermines any sense of ownership that the organisation has managed to build.
Management want it” is a pseudo justification. It subverts all of the crucial insight related to purpose, motivation and direction into an obsolete, authoritarian rationale. In marketing terms, it is not even valuable as an endorsement of what we are seeking to do. If we intend the phrase as a personal endorsement, we need to attribute specific citations of the benefits to a specific individual the group respects – not simply invoke a moniker that is the archetypical designation of a group of faceless bureaucrats (a perception that is actually reinforced by phrases like ‘management want it’)
The reality is that using the phrase ‘management want it‘ is actually short-hand for: “I am passing this on down to you but I don’t really believe it myself, so don’t blame me if it doesn’t work – I am just doing as I am told, and so should you!” We may not hear it that way with our conscious mind, but the messages it sends to our subconscious are 180 degrees opposed to the messages of modern leadership: engagement; empowerment; ownership; initiative.
As a real example of this, I was recently told a story by a CEO of their conversation with an identified ‘rising talent’ in their organisation who it transpired had received the ‘Management just want us to do it’ response in relation to an initiative which was close to the CEO’s heart (although the talent did not realise this at the time).  Accordingly, the talent took a look at it, felt that it wasn’t going to help them much, and moved on. Continuing the conversation, the CEO asked about the talent’s views on a particular issue, and discovered that the talent felt strongly that the issue needed to be fixed but that they had not recognised the initiative’s connection with the issue.
The interesting thing about this story, is not simply that it illustrates the points made above, but that the impact on culture can be so insidious that even our rising young talent are impacted by it and, furthermore, can unquestioningly accept ‘management just want it‘ as a reasonable response. Imagine the loss of potential that arises from that.
It is an issue, and it needs fixing, but how should we do that?
  • Don’t let it rest. If we are the leader within a large organisation, one in which change cascading down through the levels has been difficult, and we hear that somebody has used these words – what do we do about it? Do we let it go, forget it, ignore it? If so, will ownership of change EVER effectively cascade in our organisation?
  • Close the loop. And if we are responsible for leading or cascading change initiatives, do we follow-up? Do we go down into our teams and ask people why they are doing things, or why they are not doing things, to understand what the messages actually look like once they have emerged from the cascade?
  • Clarify what we stand for. Or, if it is not important enough for us to do that, then why were we taking time up with these initiatives in the first place? And if that leaves us nothing to champion, then what actually is our leadership about? How come there is nothing in what we stand for that is important enough to go down and check what message is being received?
  • Don’t accept the alternative. Don’t let ourselves become mindless cogs in the machine, and a poor ones at that: leaving disconnects, creating friction, conveying only a grinding pressure and transmitting none of the flow of meaning that lubricates movement, builds momentum and generates the buzz that tells you things are working as they should.
Perhaps, as a start point …
  • If we find ourselves using these words, we should ask ourselves if it is actually time for us to move on – to find a situation and a role which we can believe in – a place where, because of our hopes and our aspirations, wasting people’s times with answers like this is no longer an option!
  • And if we hear someone-else using these words, we should challenge them. Perhaps we can ask the person who said them: “So how would management answer my question if they were stood where you are?” “What would someone who saw the value of this say?”
And then …
  • We can use meeting metrics to gain a clearer understanding where meaning is getting through, and real engagement and enthusiasm are being built, and where they are not. And then we can use this insight to champion those who are getting it right, and provide help and support to those who are struggling.
  • We can ensure our own meetings clarify purpose and connection at every opportunity, through ensuring that ‘why’ is unmistakably clear, and by ensuring that it links up through a clear documented purpose for our meeting, and establishes a relationship to the purpose of the organisation and its vision
  • We can recognise that, if we are seeking to spread a culture of ownership, that ownership begins with purpose and meaning, and that we need to set an example. And that we need to set that example by taking ownership of our own messaging past the point where it leaves our mouths or our keyboard, past the point that it registers with our immediate audience, and on to the point where it is ultimately interpreted by the person who will need to take ownership for making it happen.
The fact is, we need to make our workplaces places of meaning. Or, if we cannot/will not do that, perhaps we need to find a place of meaning to make our workplace!  The alternative is a role of mediocrity in an environment of indifference – not just for ourselves, but for those around us – and life is just too short, with too much potential; too many possibilities, to be wasted in that way.
Track your progress to ensure the efficacy of this strategy.