Unless you lived under a rock and were not working in any product or service industry, you would have heard leadership using the term “taking ownership” of the processes and work. “Taking ownership” has become ingrained in corporate culture. The concept, although well-intentioned, often implies a level of control and possession that can lead to unintended negative consequences. A good example is hearing this in most work environments, “This is the way we do it.” Instead, we should focus on “stewardship” of processes and outputs. This subtle change in terminology and perspective can lead to more sustainable, collaborative, and ethical business practices.

The Pitfalls of Ownership

Ownership, by definition, involves the possession and control of property or responsibility. In a business context, it suggests that an individual or team has complete control over a process or outcome. While this can drive accountability and responsibility, it also has several drawbacks:

Isolation and Siloing: Ownership can create silos within an organization. When individuals or teams are seen as “owners” of specific processes, they may become isolated, working independently rather than collaboratively. This can hinder the flow of information and innovation across the organization.

Blame Culture: Ownership can inadvertently foster a blame culture. When something goes wrong, the “owner” of the process or outcome is often singled out for blame, which can lead to fear and a reluctance to take risks. This stifles creativity and can impede problem-solving efforts.

Overburdening Individuals: Ownership can place an unrealistic burden on individuals or teams. They may feel pressured to deliver results at all costs, leading to burnout and decreased morale. This pressure can also result in ethical compromises as the focus shifts to achieving short-term goals rather than sustainable success.

The Advantages of Stewardship

In contrast, stewardship emphasizes the responsible management and care of resources, processes, and outcomes. It involves a sense of duty and service to the organization and its stakeholders rather than control and possession. Here are some reasons why stewardship is a better approach:

Collaboration and Inclusivity: Stewardship fosters a collaborative environment where individuals and teams work together towards common goals. It encourages sharing of knowledge and resources, breaking down silos and promoting a culture of inclusivity and teamwork.

Focus on Sustainability: Stewards are committed to the long-term health and success of the organization. They prioritize sustainable practices and ethical decision-making, ensuring that processes and outcomes are practical, responsible, and beneficial for all stakeholders.

Empowerment and Accountability: While stewardship does not eliminate accountability, it reframes it positively. Stewards are empowered to make decisions and take actions that are in the organization’s best interest. This empowerment leads to a sense of pride and ownership (ethically) without the negative connotations associated with control and possession.

Supporting Evidence

Research supports the shift from ownership to stewardship in business practices. A study published in the Journal of Business Ethics found that stewardship behaviour in leadership is associated with increased organizational commitment, job satisfaction, and overall performance. Another Academy of Management Journal study highlighted that stewardship creates a positive organizational climate, enhancing collaboration and innovation.

Furthermore, companies that adopt stewardship principles often experience better financial performance and reputation. For instance, Patagonia, a company known for its environmental stewardship, has built a loyal customer base and strong brand reputation by prioritizing sustainability over short-term profits.

Implementing Stewardship in Your Organization

To shift from ownership to stewardship, consider the following steps:

Redefine Roles and Responsibilities: Clearly articulate the concept of stewardship in job descriptions and performance evaluations. Emphasize collaboration, sustainability, and ethical decision-making.

Encourage Open Communication: Foster a culture of transparency and open dialogue. Encourage employees to share ideas, concerns, and feedback without fear of blame or retribution.

Promote Ethical Leadership: Train and develop leaders who embody stewardship principles. Encourage them to lead by example, demonstrating a commitment to the organization’s and its stakeholders’ long-term well-being.

Reward Collaborative Efforts: Recognize and reward teamwork, innovation, and sustainable practices. Shift the focus from individual achievements to collective success.

Transitioning from ownership to stewardship in business processes and outputs is more than a mere change in terminology. It signifies a profound shift in perspective that encourages collaboration, sustainability, and ethical responsibility. Embracing stewardship principles allows organizations to cultivate a positive, inclusive, and resilient culture that drives long-term success and value for all stakeholders. Just as we aim to leave the environment better for future generations, we should strive to create processes and outcomes that benefit those who will come after us.

References

Hernandez, M. (2008). Promoting stewardship behavior in organizations: A leadership model. Journal of Business Ethics, 80(1), 121-128.

Davis, J. H., Schoorman, F. D., & Donaldson, L. (1997). Toward a stewardship theory of management. Academy of Management Review, 22(1), 20-47.

Chouinard, Y., Ellison, J., & Ridgeway, R. (2011). The sustainable economy. Harvard Business Review, 89(10), 52-62.

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