Bicycle | Independence & Autonomy

How Autonomy Contributes to Engagement | Post 2

James D. Ludema & Amber A. Johnson Care for people, Leadership, Return on Values

Employee Engagement & Motivation through Shared Ownership

Bicycle | Independence & AutonomyDo you remember your first bicycle? For many us, the freedom to ride a bicycle gave us our first taste of independence: we could go further, faster than ever before. Perhaps you felt brave doing so, and that sense of bravery pushed you to pedal with a little more force, or to go the extra block.

We often think of this feeling when speaking about autonomy in the workplace. A team member who is given the ability to direct their own day or lead their own initiative, feels this same sort of freedom. And like a kid on a bike, that freedom encourages them to push a little further, to go a little faster. For an employer, the bike makes your team member a better, more motivated and encouraged employee.

This is the second of a three part series on sharing ownership. In the first post (find a link here), we defined the concept:

[su_box title=”Shared Ownership” style=”soft” box_color=”#95976C”]Shared ownership is the concept that employees have autonomy and are trusted and empowered to lead within their area of responsibility; it may include actual ownership, through an ESOP or other equity structure, but it also includes circumstances where the employee is not an actual owner but feels a strong emotional connection in the company regardless, as is often seen in companies that practice Open Book Management.[/su_box]

Our Center’s research shows that creating shared ownership requires at least two things:

  1. A workforce that is educated in both what makes the company profitable, and what values and characteristics the company uses to guide decision-making. (Please see the earlier post for further description.)
  2. A workforce that is given the autonomy they need to feel inspired.

In this post, we’ll explore the concept of autonomy further. Much of this content appeared originally in our eBook, Do Differently: How CEOs of Values-Driven Companies Spend their Time.

In companies where every employee has clarity around the organization’s business model (what makes them profitable) and values (what makes them principled), the team members can be trusted to make challenging decisions.

Executing on those decisions requires autonomy, the second factor of ownership thinking. It creates, as Rick Whitsell, former president of Fresno First Bank explained to our researchers, “something other than top down leadership.”

For Kim Reed Perell, a leader in the fast-changing business of internet marketing, creating a workforce she can trust is imperative. “You have to act at the speed of trust,” says Reed Perell. Because her seasoned staff understands the metrics that influence their business decisions, and can make choices that fit the company’s culture and values, she can push the company toward innovations. “We move fast because we have high trust in the people,” she says. “I don’t second guess anyone cause I trust they are empowered to make those decisions. However, I always look at the results.”

This single principle, when executed in its complexity, is what gives CEOs the ability to take a vacation, to not check their email at night, to make a quick decision on a difficult issue.

Rick Whitsell explains it through a parable. “I’m sure you’ve heard this one about two workers out in front of the cathedral and they’re both laying stones for a pathway. And the question is asked of one of the workers…well, what are you doing? And he said ‘I’m laying a pathway.’ And the second question came to the other laborer, and he said ‘I’m building a cathedral.’ Totally different view of life. And that, in kind of a bigger picture way, is what we had hoped to deliver.”

Ownership thinking takes team members at all levels of your company and gives them clarity around the cathedral you, as CEO, are building.  When your team knows what you consider to be important, it helps them evaluate choices based on your priorities as a leader. It gives them a chance to think like an owner. When employees are able and empowered to do that (which requires a great deal of trust on the leader’s part), it contributes to the organization’s overall success.

And what does that empowerment feel like? It feels like riding a bicycle for the first time.


In our next post, we’ll explore how ownership thinking looks in one specific company, California’s Fresno First Bank.


How CEOs Spend their TimeFind more on shared ownership in our eBook, Do Differently: How CEOs of Values-Driven Companies Spend their Time. Much of this article was excerpted from the book, which you can download for free at this link.


Jim Ludema, Ph.D., is a professor of global leadership and the director of the Center for Values-Driven Leadership. Amber Johnson is the Center’s Chief Communications Officers. Together with colleagues, they serve on the Return on Values research team.


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