Published on 11th May, 2014, in The Economic Times.
Ravan abducts Sita and takes her to Lanka. Ram follows with an army of monkeys and lays siege to the island-kingdom. Ravan’s brothers and sons do not blame their father for the mess they have created. They stand by him and fight against Ram. Disregarding the ethics of the situation, Ravan’s family displays ownership. His problem is their problem.
Many organisations want me to give a speech that will instil ownership in their employees. That’s a really tall order. And I often wonder if employers or management really understand the meaning of ownership. What does it mean to have the spirit of ownership? And is the current corporate ecosystem conducive to such emotions? Let us go to the basics.
In nature, the concept of ownership does not exist. Animals own nothing. There is no concept of property. There are territories that animals fight over but they can hold on to it only as long as they are strong enough to fend off rivals. Animals are fiercely protective of their young, but that cannot be qualified as ownership. So ownership is something that is peculiarly human. It means something belongs to me. I own it.
n the monastic discourse of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, wisdom lies in realizing we own nothing. Fear makes us cling to things and declare it as our property. Fear makes us fight for what we think is ours. Wisdom lies in letting go. So it is strange that many people seek solutions to the ownership problem in spiritual literature.
Perhaps what is being sought from employees is a responsibility over things that they do not really own. A display of responsibility and initiative that is beyond contractual obligations, perhaps? How does one instill that? A simple answer that is often given is to make all employee shareholders as long as they are in employment. That may not be feasible at all times. And even if one is made the legal owner with a financial stake in the organization, it does not mean there will be the desired display of ownership.
When something belongs to me, I have the freedom to order it around. I also want to protect and nourish it. When companies seek a sense of ownership from their employees, they want it in the latter sense (protect and nourish the organisation) and not in the former sense (order it around).
Typically: documents are drawn up listing behaviours that the organization considers to express ownership; people are encouraged to display this behaviour in training sessions; systems are created to measure this behaviour. In doing so, we end up creating an ecosystem that discourages the spirit of ownership, without even realising it.
In the modern corporation, where there are rules for everything, we cannot order things around as per our whim. The management seeks control. Processes determine everything from how we recruit, how we work, where we work, what we do, to how we fire. There are templates for everything. There is little room for negotiation or creativity. We do not feel invested in the process, as all that is asked of us is our compliance. It feels like a prison. It is tough to feel ownership for a cage.
Further, especially in large growing corporations, individuals do not seem to matter. Every human being is reduced to being an employee code with a work station in a cube farm. You are not allowed to think. You are only expected to comply and perform. And a pink slip can appear without reason suddenly, something that is endorsed by the treatment of employees in leading multinationals that often makes it to the press. When you are thus dehumanized, it is tough to feel a sense of ownership for an organisation.
To feel responsible and take initiative for a company is not easy when the company does not see our personal problems as its own. We nourish and protect things that grants us nourishment and protection. We are protective of that which protects us, that which grants us security and status. Like tigers that fight fiercely for their territory, we display ownership for people and organisations on whom we depend for our well being. Thus to create ‘ownership’ in employees, the burden really falls on the owner/management and not on the employees. People cannot be told to display ownership; organisational processes and policies must evoke it.