We’ve all dealt with employees who were great at their jobs, and with employees who couldn’t have cared less. To maintain a competitive advantage in today’s fast-paced world, organizations need to motivate and engage all their employees. This isn’t hard for employees who are passionate and enthusiastic by nature, but what about apathetic and cynical employees? In a recent study run using Qualtrics, we explored how organizations can benefit from higher employee engagement, lower turnover, and increased financial performance by simply increasing the feeling of ownership employees experience – regardless of whether employees have any ownership in the business itself.
Corporations have been leveraging the concept of ownership to motivate workers since the mid 1970’s. During that time, the US workforce experienced an overall decline in productivity as workers became increasingly alienated and disengaged. Amidst these and other issues (e.g., the skyrocketing number of workers eligible for Social Security benefits), the US Congress passed legislation incentivizing the sale of company stock to current employees, giving birth to the employee stock ownership plan.
The idea was simple – give workers a piece of the pie and they will work harder and be happier, right? Turns out, not so much. As stock ownership plans rolled out across the nation, organizational researchers conducted a number of studies with mixed and inconclusive results. Some studies found slight positive effects on productivity while others found no difference at all. One large study even found that the amount of stock ownership had no relationship to an employee’s level of commitment or job satisfaction.
A NEW KIND OF OWNERSHIP
In response to these underwhelming findings, a group of researchers found that the feeling of ownership mattered more than actual ownership when it came to predicting attitudes and behaviors. In other words, even the most well-conceived employee stock ownership plan would fail unless it was implemented in such a way that employees experienced greater feelings of ownership towards their job and company.
This type of ownership – called psychological ownership – is defined as the extent to which an employee feels as though their organization or their job is “theirs” (i.e., “this is MY company!”) to the point that the company becomes an important part of an employee’s self-identity.
Many studies have shown how important the feeling of ownership is for employees. However, not much is known about how psychological ownership develops across different types of people. We ran a study examining how employee disposition influenced feelings of psychological ownership.
In the hit television series, “Parks and Recreation” it’s easy to relate the colorful range of characters to our own workplaces. Two of these characters do a great job representing extreme ends of the spectrum on an individual trait called positive affectivity, or the tendency towards extraversion, enthusiasm, and optimistic moods. Leslie Knope, the passionate and hardworking deputy director of Pawnee’s Parks and Recreation department, is almost the prototypical example of a positive and engaged employee. April Ludgate, on the other hand, is a classic example of a disengaged employee with a toxic attitude.
While Leslie would go to the ends of the earth to get a job done, it would take a miracle to get April to do anything she doesn’t want to do. So should employers just give up on the April’s of the world? The answer is no. We found that even the most apathetic and uninspired employees felt psychological ownership when certain job characteristics were present. This is important for organizations because psychological ownership bears fruit in terms of greater customer satisfaction, higher quality products and services, lower turnover, and greater commitment from employees.
What does this mean for organizations? When we looked at how job characteristics interacted with positive affectivity, we found that autonomy (the extent to which an employee can use their own judgments in making decisions and carrying out their work) and task identity (the extent to which a job allows someone to be involved from the beginning to the end of a project) were able to “overcome” employee disposition. For example, when job autonomy was low, the Leslies felt 74% more ownership towards their jobs than the disengaged Aprils. When autonomy was high, however, the difference between the two groups shrunk to only 9%. Introducing high task identity shrunk the gap between the Leslies and the Aprils from 45% to 11%. This demonstrates that simply changing the structure of a job and offering more autonomy and task identity can make a huge difference in employees’ feelings of ownership, which can ripple throughout the organization impacting things such as employee productivity and an organization’s overall financial performance.
In other words, when autonomy and task identity were high, both the Leslies and the Aprils felt high amounts of psychological ownership. When these two characteristics were not present, the Leslies reported high ownership while the Aprils reported low ownership. This implies that (a) it’s possible for virtually every employee to feel high levels of ownership, (b) that autonomy and task identity are particularly important for contributing to feelings of ownership for the Aprils, and (c) highly positive employees feel more ownership at low levels of autonomy and task identity. Here is what it looks like:
These findings have strong implications for the workplace. Psychological ownership has a huge influence on positive work attitudes and behaviors, and our findings show that autonomy and task identity are particularly important for psychological ownership among employees with poor attitudes. The results suggest that giving a little bit of autonomy to these employees may go a long way towards promoting ownership. There are several ways to implement these findings:
Managers can increase autonomy by:
- Involving staff in making decisions that influence their work
- Encouraging staff to apply their own judgment when solving problems
- Avoiding management practices and processes that constrain autonomy, such as directive styles of management, excessive monitoring, or unnecessary approvals
Managers can increase task identity by:
- Involving employees in more aspects of work by having them participate in the planning, reporting, and evaluation of projects rather than just the “doing”
- Communicating how employees’ activities contribute to the final product so they can see the results of their work and how it fits in to the bigger picture
- Providing employees with the opportunity to completely finish any work they start
It’s also important to note that we strongly advise against “removing” employees with low positive affectivity. In fact, the Aprils of the world may even make better decisions than highly positive employees when it’s important to maintain focus on negative information or information that may contradict currently held opinions.
In summary, our research shows that simple features of the design of employee work might be leveraged to overcome the effects of disposition, such that the most optimistic and energetic of staff to the most apathetic and aloof will experience this positive psychological state. This, in turn, can lead to increased employee engagement, productivity, job commitment, and satisfaction. And that’s good news for everyone.