Creating a Culture of Ownership: Breaking Free from Hierarchy

Diederick Janse
Written by Diederick Janse March 31, 2024

The buzzword 'ownership' has been circulating in education and business circles for the past decade. Apparently, we want more of it, but what does it really mean, and how can we cultivate it in our organizations?

The sense of 'mine'

Let's dive into the concept of 'psychological ownership.' It's simple: at its core, ownership is that feeling of something belonging to you, whether it's tangible like a house or intangible like a role within a group.

Ownership isn't just about possessing something; it's about investing yourself—your time, energy, care, and passion. It's about that shift from 'it' to 'mine,' where the thing you're involved in becomes a part of your identity.

Research studies have revealed that a strong sense of ownership leads to greater responsibility, higher job satisfaction, increased commitment, a stronger sense of belonging, and ultimately, better results. It's no surprise that we're all craving more of it.

Ownership vs. hierarchy

Here's the kicker: the way we organize has the exact opposite effect. Our traditional organizational structures often crush the sense of ownership.

Let’s do a quick thought experiment: Imagine you wanted to build an organization where people feel as little ownership as possible —how would you do it? You'd tightly control access to information, limit influence, restrict autonomy, and then hold people accountable for their performance.

Sound familiar? It should. Our organizational hierarchies, from the days of Napoleon's armies to Henry Ford's assembly lines, have been designed for control and efficiency, not for nurturing ownership.

Yes, hierarchies have flattened, and management styles have changed, but under the hood, it’s pretty much the same 'social technology' designed for control, obedience, and efficiency.

However, despite these constraints, many of us are still trying to increase ownership within these rigid structures. It's like swimming upstream against a strong current. Sure, it's possible, but it's exhausting, highly dependent on individuals, and it erodes rapidly.

Henry Ford once said, "Why is it that every time I ask for a pair of hands, they come with a brain attached?" Clearly, he wasn't looking for ownership because that didn’t fit his organizational model—the most efficient mass production of cars.

Creating a culture of ownership

What about your own organization? Is it designed to maximize control, obedience, and efficiency? Or are you looking for entrepreneurship, collaboration, and impact? Are you building an environment where everyone feels fully engaged, shaping and evolving together in pursuit of a clear north star?

Imagine an organization where ownership isn't an afterthought but a cornerstone—a culture of ownership.

Ownership, not despite the organization, but because of it. A way of working designed for embedding ownership into every aspect of how we work—how we make decisions, allocate tasks, hold each other accountable, and even how we run meetings.

In recent years, pioneering organizations from around the world have been quietly tinkering with such a social technology. They've uncovered and implemented three key breakthroughs inspired by Frédéric Laloux’s research:

  1. Wholeness: Bring your whole self to work—mind, body, and soul.
  2. Purpose: Align all interests around a shared mission.
  3. Self-management: Give employees both responsibility and authority.
And the results speak for themselves: Danish research shows steward-owned companies are six times more likely to survive beyond 40 years compared to companies with traditional, shareholder-based ownership.
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A role and a voice for all

In his book Citizens, Jon Alexander traces the story of how we look at ourselves, from subjects to consumers to citizens. In this new paradigm, employees aren't mere cogs in a machine; they become owners. Everyone has a role to play and a voice to be heard in shaping the organization's future.

Some organizations are taking this even further by reimagining not only their cultures but also their legal and financial structures. Enter steward-ownership, a model where the focus is on the long-term health and sustainability of the organization rather than short-term profits.

And the results speak for themselves: Danish research shows steward-owned companies are six times more likely to survive beyond 40 years compared to companies with traditional, shareholder-based ownership.

So, are you building a culture of ownership within your organization? Start by examining your team or organization. What fosters ownership, and what stands in its way? What can you change? And most importantly, do you feel ownership despite—or because of—the existing structure?

It's a journey—a rebellion against the status quo, embracing a new way of thinking and working—a mindset that celebrates ownership, collaboration, and purpose.

But it's not without its challenges. Creating a culture of ownership requires courage, perseverance, and a willingness to challenge conventional wisdom. It means dismantling outdated systems and embracing uncertainty.

Yet, the rewards are immense. Organizations that foster a culture of ownership are more agile, innovative, and resilient. They attract top talent and inspire loyalty among employees. They're not just businesses—they're movements, driven by a shared vision of a better future.

So, are you ready to join the rebellion? Are you ready to build a culture of ownership—one where every voice is heard, every idea is valued, and every individual is empowered to make a difference?

The choice is yours.

Written by Diederick Janse
Diederick Janse
Co-founder of Energized.org, a cooperative that helps organizations build cultures of ownership and citizenship through self-governance.
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