Improving Worker Productivity Through Job Ownership

Most workers have no interest in changing the world. Most don’t even like their jobs. Increasing employees’ job engagement pays high dividends, so how do you motivate the disenchanted on your team to join the job ownership ranks? Through communication, motivation and reward.

Most CEOs would call Roger Perlmutter an out-of-touch dreamer. As president of Merck Laboratories and EVP of Merck & Co., Perlmutter expects his employees to step up and take ownership of their jobs, and he lets them know that. He has specifically encouraged his R&D crew to innovate, even to risk their careers for what they believe in. “Every now and then, I expect you to bet your job,” he told Forbes in September 2013. “I expect you to come in to me and say, ‘I’ll bet my job that this is right, and we ought to be doing this.’ … I want people who are prepared to change the world.”


Most workers have no interest in changing the world. Most don’t even like their jobs. Depending on which study you heed, about half your workers “rent” rather than own their work, while 17%-29% on either end of the scale rate as either actively engaged or actively disengaged, according to The Conference Board. The balance between disengaged, unengaged, and fully engaged seems remarkably consistent from study to study and year to year.

Increasing job engagement pays high dividends. In 2010, pollsters at Gallup calculated the business average for engaged vs. non-engaged employees at 1.83:1, whereas world class companies averaged almost 10:1. They set the benchmark for “world class” at 8:1. And according to a 2006 study by The Conference Board of Canada, companies with high engagement levels outcompete their less-engaged rivals by up to 28%.

So, like Perlmutter, how do you beat the odds and motivate the disenchanted on your team to join the job ownership ranks?

Engagement in Action

You probably already have a good idea of where your people fall on the engagement continuum. You may even have initiated a program to encourage them to pour their discretionary effort into the company rather than bolting out the door at 5 p.m.. If not, or if you’ve seen little success, try these strategies.

1. Communicate. Make your organization and team goals crystal clear to everyone, and explain why each person’s contributions matter. Keep your interactions open and honest, and listen to feedback. In summer 2012, outdoor equipment company REI implemented a “company campfire” via social media to test the pulse of employee opinion. Within a year, more than 4,500 of its 11,000 employees had logged in at least once to share their viewpoints.

2. Motivate. Even in this economy, the old “work or get fired” incentive plan won’t cut it, because technological and social changes have made workers less reliant on traditional employment. So provide compelling reasons—whether financial or otherwise—for team members to take control of the outcomes of their work. For example, Southwest Airlines portrays itself as a fun place to work, and offers employment extras like free travel and profit-sharing.

3. Reward. Show your appreciation for hard work. It doesn’t take a free vacation to grab an employee’s attention; many will be satisfied with public praise and the recognition that comes with it. An employee-of-the-month award or a nice parking space can also mean a lot. That said, financial rewards are always welcome. Promotions, raises and other responsibility-sharing rewards should be given to those who prove they have earned them.

Happy Happy Happy

Your employees want to be happy in their jobs. They want to know they’re doing meaningful work that helps both them and others. They need to know they have the freedom to take the initiative, and get the job done without getting bogged down in bureaucracy or censure. When allowed the freedom to succeed, they will—often beyond your wildest dreams. While not everyone will respond the way you hope, workers who own their jobs are more likely to push the envelope in all the ways that matter to your business.

Laura Stack is president of The Productivity Pro, Inc. She’s the author of six books, including Execution IS the Strategy.

Additional Reading:

Merck R&D Head Bets Slashing Bureaucracy Will Unlock Innovation

Employee Engagement: What’s Your Engagement Ratio? (Gallup Consulting)



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