Ownership: The Ultimate Motivator

Encouraging employees to take ownership of their work will result in better customer service and a stronger company.

Most of us with childhood memories of learning to ride a bike can recall one exhilarating moment in particular: when our parent's hand let go of the bike and we were on our own. At that instant, ownership of the experience passed to us. We were responsible for not falling down or getting lost.

As a customer, step inside any neighborhood business and try to determine who "owns" the customer experience in that particular operation. It's usually not difficult to distinguish between friendly employee behavior that's spontaneous and voluntary versus behavior--even pleasant and courteous--that's "required" by management. Genuine, sincere friendliness almost always looks and feels very different than the mandated variety.

Many managers already know this, but they also know that unless they mandate friendliness, it won't happen. Their employees lack the motivation to be responsive to customers on their own.

The Fear of Letting Go
This three-part series summarizes the research I've conducted in high-energy, high-performance businesses of all kinds over several decades. My objective has been to isolate the cultural aspects that make these businesses so different from all the others. I've boiled my findings down to three primary factors.

Any one of these cultural elements has the power to dramatically improve employee motivation. To achieve the ultimate level of employee motivation, however, all three cultural aspects must be operating at the same time.

Many mainstream businesses struggling with employee cynicism and apathy will have a hard time "letting go" and transferring ownership of the customer experience directly to the employees. This fear is both unfortunate and unfounded. Unfortunate because the last of the three factors is the one that has the most powerful, quickest and longest-lasting impact on employee motivation in the workplace. Unfounded because when implemented correctly, this change turns out to be a "nothing to lose, everything to gain" proposition.

The Quest for Alignment
The wrong way to transfer ownership of the customer experience is by suddenly giving workers carte blanche to deal with customers any way they choose. What's needed is a systematic process for organization-wide culture change--one that's owned and controlled by manage�ment. The objective is to create a workplace setting in which everyone, at all levels, cares deeply about working together to achieve the same meaningful objective.

The process begins with a simple four-step experiment:

  1. Have at least one employee come up with at least one new and original idea for improving the customer experience.
  2. Encourage the employee to take charge of implementing the idea. Provide help or support if needed.
  3. Make it convenient for customers affected by the idea to supply positive feedback about it.
  4. Observe the effect of this feedback on the employee who originated and implemented the idea.

This simple, four-step process is really the driving force behind the whole culture shift. There's nothing shocking about it, yet I hear from managers again and again how struck they are by the intensity of the motivational effect this kind of customer feedback has on their employees. The main reason for it, of course, is ownership. It's the workers' own ideas that are inspiring the feedback--and that simple fact makes all the difference in the world.

Once all workers have experienced the highly motivational effect of positive customer feedback related to their own ideas and efforts--the so-called "helper's high"--the culture shift is in high gear.

To recap the three-component formula for creating a turbo-charged workforce: make work feel more like play, shift the collective focus of the organization outward to helping customers, and let employees develop their own strategies for improving the customer experience. For anyone looking to do more than give employee morale a temporary boost, this is a glimpse of how it's done inside those legendary high-performance businesses everyone else dreams of emulating.

Part One: How to Create a Turbo-Charged Work Force
Part Two: The Biggest Motivation-Killer

Author and consultant Paul Levesque has spent many years interviewing manage�ment and staff in all kinds of high-performance businesses all over the world. There's much more on all the topics touched on in this three-part series--along with many real-world case-study examples--in Levesque's just-released bookMotivation.

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