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What makes people step up and take a ownership?

The art of delegating decisions up the chain of command is well established! But it slows things down and makes the business less responsive, not to mention the increased email traffic to your in-box. You wouldn’t be alone if you wished you didn’t have to resolve everything by yourself sometimes.

Two reasons why teams avoid taking responsibility

Teams avoid owning and resolving problems by themselves, especially contentious ones, for two main reasons.

The first is obvious: if the perceived cost of getting it wrong is greater than getting it right, it makes sense to defer to those further up the chain. ‘It’s above my pay grade’ is the supporting logic.

The second is less obvious. The mindset many managers have innocently inhibits their capacity to show leadership.

Mindsets are habits of thinking that are grounded in what seems true. They sit in the background, mainly unnoticed, shaping what people feel and how they behave. When recurring problems that aren't easy to solve show up they are often responsible for how people react.

Mindsets stem from people's experience and are personal. So in most business contexts in which processes and behaviours surrounding performance are the preferred focus, they’re rarely spoken about. Yet when they are, in development programmes and coaching, you soon see how unhelpful habits hold people's performance back.

Here are some of the common thinking habits we see managers carrying around in their heads that rarely get discussed:

  • My knowledge of life generally, crafted from sometimes tough personal experiences, doesn’t count when it comes to leading in different situations in this organisation.

  • I struggle to face difficulties because I believe my concerns and fears are telling me something real about my abilities.

  • I’m in an every-person-for-themselves game called ‘survival of the fittest’. The idea that I am part of creating something of value for colleagues and our customers seems idealistic and remote.

  • I don’t have the authority to assess what’s fair and reasonable or agree or restrict colleagues’ actions. Others hold that authority, not me.

  • I can’t get beyond the way I’ve always thought about some things so can't create value in ways previously not considered.

Habits like these are obviously self limiting and have a personal impact. Yet when people stand back from them they see they’re not well founded in many instances. For example there are many times in people’s private lives when they’re called on to be wise or show courage and take decisions designed to benefit many not just a few. Taking on a mortgage, helping a child deal with bullying or caring for parents unable to look after themselves are just three examples. People show leadership more often than they know!

We live in fast changing times. To thrive in them, how we think about management hierarchies is changing. Leadership is becoming more distributed to front line teams and less centralised. Organisations are needing more people to step up and take a lead: on social media, when persuading their networks, when with clients and when disputes arise to name just a few occasions. Leaders at the top don’t have the time or mental space to be continually commanding and controlling.

What makes the difference when it comes to helping people take ownership?

Developing people’s capacity to lead is often misunderstood in business. We’ve collectively placed a lot of emphasis on teaching leadership skills. We've seen processes, procedures, incentives, objectives and bonuses as the main levers to help us change how people behave. And whilst these are of some help they’re not the whole story.

But for our habits of thinking, the leadership qualities needed to own and resolve problems are innate; they’re part of being human. We all have a capacity to be curious, to listen, empathise and suspend judgement. We all have more wisdom, courage and compassion than we realise. Bringing these qualities to the surface is not about skills, it's about breaking the thinking habits that stop them shining through.

Once people realise for themselves just how self limiting some habits can be, removing them becomes easier. What once felt like significant blockages to what people believed they were capable of dissipate. In rediscovering what's innate people enjoy stepping up to the leadership plate. It makes a big difference to their life, those they serve and if you're their leader, yours too.

We hope you found this helpful. What do you think stops people taking ownership of important issues?

Discover more on a new approach to developing leadership in our short Informational Picture Essay (InfoPic). If you'd like to discover more about your innate qualities the Insight Paper will help.

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