For many companies, January is the time to sit down and plot out a strategy for the year ahead.

Did you have a great 2017? How do you make 2018 even better? Was 2017 a struggle,  which is not good, considering the economic conditions? What can you or your team do to turn the ship around?

Here at Thinker, we set aside a Friday afternoon to celebrate our successes and identify where we need to get better. When we’d finished those lists, each of us was asked to identify the improvement projects we wanted to participate in and which ones we wanted to “own.”

What does “owning” something at work mean?

Warren Tanner of had a good piece on “ownership” two years ago. He defined taking ownership at work this way:

“We take ownership when we believe that taking action is not someone else’s responsibility. It’s the opposite of passing the buck. If you owned the company, what would you do? You’d do the right thing.  Taking ownership is taking the initiative to do the right thing.  You see a problem and, even if it’s not yours, you step in to be part of the solution.”

In Thinker’s case, the ask was more intentional. Instead of identifying a weakness and voluntarily stepping in, we identified our weaknessnes as a group and asked for team members to step up and lead the change. It’s still a big step. Tanner cited an American Management Association study from 2013 showing that many managers have fairly low opinions of people in their offices.

The question was “What proportion of your employees seek to avoid responsibility?”

The results?

  • 17% of respondents said that less than 10% avoid responsibility.
  • 24% said 10% to 20% avoid responsibility.
  • 22% said 20% to 30% avoid responsibility.
  • 21% said 30% to 50% avoid responsibility.
  • 11% said more than 50% avoid responsibility.

Obviously, if you are a manager who would fall into the category of having a staff on which 50 percent avoid responsibility, you may need to look at your hiring practices. If you are in one of the other four categories, perhaps there’s a chance to help them take ownership. Tanner’s suggestions:

  • Don’t micromanage. Identify the parameters of a project and allow your team to problem-solve. If you criticize or look over their shoulders, then it’s really just your project.
  • Give your team a voice. The larger the company, the more the tendency to push problems up the ladder. Have a clear process for people to make suggestions and the willingness to allow them to expand their roles.
  • Paint a big picture. If your team doesn’t understand how their roles affect company performance, there’s little incentive for them to improve their practices or stretch themselves.
  • Make ’em owners. The world works on incentives. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research — here’s a bit of trivia, NBER is the official designator of recessions — companies with employee-ownership options tend to match or exceed the performance of similar companies. More than 20 percent of private-sector employees own stock in their own companies and more than 8 million participate in Employee Stock Ownership Plans. If offering an ownership stake isn’t an option, perhaps an incentive program tied to company profits will help. The goal is to allow everyone to put some skin in the game.

If you’re reading this and you are on the other side — the worker side — of the table, then you should take ownership of a project when opportunities arise … because it leads to more opportunities.

Jeff Goins of wrote a book, The Art of Work, tracing the common traits of all successful people. His research showed that successful people rarely leave their destiny up to circumstance; they don’t merely hope to succeed. Sure, there is a lot of chaos and luck in the world and it plays a role, but successful people understand that they have the ability to influence their outcome.

So how do you “stack the deck,” as Goins says, in your favor?

  • Realize that you are smarter than people who have already succeeded in your profession. It’s not the smartest people who always succeed. Malcom Gladwell, author of several perceptive stats-based books, once wrote a chapter about geniuses. The smartest man in recorded history spent most of his life as a bouncer. The ones who succeed are the ones who identify the strengths they have and use those to their greatest advantage. They don’t let their weaknesses stop them.
  • There will never be a better time to start than … today. All financial firms teach their stock brokers, who are in essence salesmen, a variation of this line: “When was the best time to begin saving for retirement? Twenty years ago. When is the next best time to begin saving? Today.” Unsuccessful people come up with excuses for why they can’t start things — no matter how small. It’s your life. No path starts without a first step.
  • If you don’t take yourself seriously, nobody else will. A good saying came out of a Thinker meeting: “Saying it doesn’t make it happen.” We recognize the people who are all talk. They can be entertaining, but they are not the ones you go to for critical help. They are the ones complaining about how things are unfair. You want to be seen as the professional … not the amateur. Step up and be counted.