How to Get Your Employees to Think Like Owners

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Engaged employees aren’t just more productive, they have better attendance, lower turnover and approach each day with grit and enthusiasm.   Many businesses have tried a wide range of strategies to improve employee engagement, including profit-sharing programs. They offer equity, assuming that employees will be more invested because they technically own a small part of the company. But studies have shown that stocks aren’t enough to make employees think like owners.    The problem is that while you worry about cash flow, your employees worry about project deadlines. While you worry about company culture, your employees worry about keeping their biggest client happy. You worry about growing your agency, and your employees worry about training the new guy.    As an owner, your priority is always the big picture—making sure that the business maintains healthy growth over the long term. Your employees, however, are stuck in the daily demands of their specific role. They can’t think like owners because they’re treated like employees. And that doesn’t change with stock options.  If you want your employees to think like owners, you have to start treating them like owners. Here are some practical ways to accomplish this in your company: 

Choose transparency

At most companies, there’s a lack of transparency into the biggest problems. Staff may sense that there are deep issues that CEOs and managers discuss behind closed doors, like unhappy employees or unmet quotas. Too often, those in leadership positions try to keep these problems quiet so everyone focuses on the positive and keeps moving ahead.   It’s tempting to keep big, company-wide problems to yourself so your employees don’t get the idea that the company is experiencing trouble. Inevitably, this kind of “positive thinking” keeps your team in the dark and perpetuates a culture of ignoring problems rather than solving them. Your team can’t think about the big picture if they don’t see the full picture. 

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How often should you really communicate with your team?

Staying connected is one of the most important requirements for happy teams and productive teamwork. Finding your sweet spot for interaction frequency might take a little bit of trial and error — especially now that our ways have working have changed, and your ideal interaction rhythms might have changed with it — but if you devote the time to getting it right, it’ll pay off: with happier, more productive, more cohesive teams.

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Cultivate a problem-solving culture

Don’t be afraid to show your employees the big-picture problems so they understand how much you value their problem-solving skills. They can practice thinking like an owner and start growing into a leadership role while you benefit from several heads working on your toughest problem, rather than just one.  Here are just a few ways to empower your teams to solve problems:

  • Weekly all-hands meetings in which you talk about some of the biggest challenges that are affecting the whole company—and brainstorm initiatives to address them. To make sure everyone can participate, send out an agenda that clearly defines the issues you want to focus on. You can use a collaborative app like Quipor Google Docs to share ideas and let people discuss solutions ahead of time. 

  • Progress reports in which you show financial data and the targets you need to hit as a team. Studies have shown that when employees know  how their work fits into the larger company goals, they perform better. You can use a tool like ProfitWell to send out company-wide email updates on growth and goals, or a tool like Zoho to make financial information accessible in a dashboard to anyone in the company. 

  • An internal company blog where owners and managers can document the problems they’re facing as a company. It’s a more personal medium that can help employees understand the thought process behind the big decisions that are made by owners. You can use a tool like WordPress or Ghost to get it up and running in less than an hour. 

Team members can’t help solve problems if they don’t know they exist. While it might be terrifying to shine a light on your company’s issues, it will help unite your team around a singular purpose. The team will be more invested in the company as a whole rather than just their own problems, increasing team cohesion and loyalty. 

Empower everyone to be decision-makers

One of the biggest differentiators between employees and managers is the ability to make decisions. When companies grow out of a flat structure, they often create tiers to separate the decision-makers from the doers. So their structure looks something like this:

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People in leadership positions make decisions [blue], while employees execute [yellow]  Execution is often given lower value in the hierarchy, so it’s tempting to use this structure as an opportunity to cut down on salary costs. But this structure means that the majority of your workforce is being treated like cogs in the machine.   Employees aren’t compelled to think like owners because they don’t get a shot at making even basic decisions. Conversely, people in management are making decisions to improve execution, but they don’t deal with the day-to-day, so their decisions aren’t grounded in real problems.  To get everyone at your company to think like an owner, you have to eliminate this divide. Give everyone an opportunity to contribute to the decisions being made and partake in the execution. 

Delegate decision and action plans

Apple uses a Directly Responsible Individual (DRI) model, which means they give their employees ownership over problems. Each meeting at Apple ends with action items assigned to one employee. The DRI isn’t responsible for just getting a task done, they’re responsible for figuring out the best way to deal with the problem.   At a marketing agency, for example, it might be tempting to get a general manager to oversee campaigns and smooth over problems with clients. When a client complains about getting work that was sub-par quality, a manager can talk to the client to learn what went wrong and tell their employee precisely what to do to fix the campaign. Under the DRI, model, however, the person who created that campaign would be responsible for fixing it and interfacing with the client themselves.    This creates a structure in which management and execution aren’t separate responsibilities–each job involves both decision-making and taking action on those decisions. As an employee grows in the company, it’s simply the scope of that decision that changes.

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All the people in the company are doing both decision-making and execution This lets every person in the company—from the CEO down through the office manager—own their work. They’re practising the decision-making skills necessary to think like an owner and executing on them.   Tactically, this means:

  • Delegating problems, not solutions. Use your team project management software to delegate problems rather than tasks. The responsible individual can then break that problem into the necessary tasks themselves and scope out the project for everyone to see. At a marketing agency, for example, a manager can assign a social media campaign in which an employee has to figure out the best channels and engagement strategies for a particular client. 

  • Assigning a single name to every project. Rather than assigning several names to any given project, hold one person accountable. Make the DRI known to everyone in the company through a database that’s publicly accessible. You can keep a simple running Google Sheet that people can reference. 

  • Holding 1:1 weekly check-ins. Use this time to set goals and talk about how smaller projects fit into the scope of larger projects. This will help employees understand which decisions are best for the whole group, rather than just themselves.

Breaking away from the traditional top-down structure where managers make all the decisions is simply a matter of relinquishing control. It means allowing your employees to start making decisions early, so that they can learn by doing, just like owners.

Take employee input seriously

Employees who aren’t in management positions don’t think like owners because they feel like their opinion isn’t as valuable as the folks who have been around for a while. But if you want everyone to be engaged from day one, you need to give them a seat at the table.   Employees who feel like their opinions make a difference in their company feel more invested in its success. Also, it sets a precedent for a feedback-driven environment, in which every person is growing and improving.

Create feedback loops

It’s not enough to simply ask your employees their opinions on an ad hoc basis—you need a process that helps you collect feedback and implement it systematically. A recent report from Quantum Workplace found that employees who received consistent feedback from a manager are 12 times more likely to be considered engaged the following year, yet only 13 percent of employees receive regular progress updates.   Without this commitment to ongoing feedback, not only will you lose valuable information, your employees will feel like the feedback is a simple formality that isn’t being taken seriously.   At, CEO Peter Coppinger is collecting employee feedback more regularly in order to maximize team happiness. Here are the tools he uses to listen to individual perspectives in a rapidly-growing company:

  • eNPS (Employee Net Promoter Score) surveys. is dedicated to making the company a highly desirable place to work, so bi-annually, Peter sends out an eNPS survey. Employees who report negative feedback are asked “why,” which gives company leaders a better sense of friction points that need attention and ideas for constructive solutions. Surveys such as eNPS, Employee satisfaction surveys, 360 Degree Employee Evaluation surveys are all very effective ways to get to know what is inside your employees' heads, you can conduct these types of surveys with the help of a survey maker such as JotForm or Blue.

  • Feed the CEO Monkey. Peter collects anonymous questions from his team in a Google Form, reads each one, and then answers them in the company’s internal blog.  This process has been instrumental in uncovering problems and gathering suggestions for specific team issues at the company. Posting the answers in a company-wide forum lets each team member know that the founders are listening and responsive.

  • OfficevibeThese are just a few examples of the tools you can use to gather feedback from your employees. While there are a ton of ways to get honest feedback from your team, what’s most important is that you act on it. In order to think like owners, employees need to feel like their input has the potential to improve the business. 

The ROI on Empowering your Employees

Disengaged employees cost American businesses an estimated $550 billion a year—and direct monetary losses are only one part of that number. Disengagement can create a negative company culture, which can lead to poor customer service, high turnover and lower productivity.   But according to Francesca Gino, Harvard Business School professor and motivation expert, empowering your employees to think like owners is a hedge against disengagement. Not only does an ownership mentality make the individual a better and more invested employee—they’re also more likely to positively influence everyone around them. If you get employees to think like owners, they’ll be self-motivated to grow your company, and produce high-quality work every day.

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How to express gratitude to your team

And while the workplace is the perfect place to put your gratitude into practice — who better to thank than the people who work alongside you for one-third of almost every day, helping you to get things done? — sometimes it can be tricky to know how to express your appreciation without seeming unprofessional. Here’s how to give thanks to the people who deserve it, every day, all year round.

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