This article is written for non-manager champions of employee ownership, because you are the key to
making things work. You’re not in this alone--it’s absolutely essential to have management at all
levels deeply committed to employee-ownership.
Still, company managers on their own can’t make people believe in employee-ownership. If anyone is
going to effectively challenge the cynics, it’s going to be you. The social psychologists are
clear--when it comes to changing people’s ideas about values, the meaning of work, and big concepts
like ownership, the thing that works best is peer-to-peer dialogue.
With that in mind, here are some ideas you can use.
“We’re Not Alone”--Put Your Story in Context
In the case of ESOPs, it’s harder for people to be cynical when they know that over 8,500 other
companies have ESOPs, that almost 10% of the U.S. workforce participates in ESOPs, and that ESOPs
have been regulated by the Department of Labor and the IRS since 1974. Similar information is available
about other types of ownership plans, including options and stock purchase plans. You can also have
employees meet people from other employee-ownership companies, find some newspaper clippings about
people retiring with substantial account values, or publicize some of the research on employee-ownership.
Manage People’s Expectations
One of the strengths of employee-ownership champions is also a weakness: they get excited about employee
ownership. Sometimes they are tempted to promise that a company-wide paradise is just around the corner.
It’s not. Employee-ownership companies have the potential to be wonderful, fulfilling places to work, but
it takes time and effort, and day-to-day frustrations are still going to be day-to-day frustrations.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s good for people to be excited, but if the excitement is based on hopes that turn
out not to be realistic, the resulting disappointment is a killer. We recommend that companies talk frankly
about the legal rights held by employee-owners, and, in the eyes of the law, they don’t have many.
Employees should understand that the company treats employees like owners because its leaders believe
that it is the right thing to do, not because of any legal requirements.
The best way to make sure people’s expectations are realistic is for the company to have a clear vision
about what ownership means--and what it does not mean. That vision is not something you can do on your
own, but it’s powerful when a company takes on this task successfully. One of our clients, Carris Reels
[Click here for an article about Carris Reels], is part way through a
long-term process to systematically determine and communicate who in the company is involved in which
decisions in what manner. Transparent decision-making is the basis for realistic expectations.
You’ll often feel like you’re shouting into a void, and no one’s listening. Most of the change in a
group’s psychology is gradual, and very hard to notice from month to month, especially for someone
inside the organization. Find a way to measure people’s attitudes. It should be a way that is
quantifiable, so you can track change over time. It should also involve a broad cross-section of the
work force--not just the “squeaky wheels.”
Passing the Baton
One of the hardest things for you to do is to find and train the person who’s going to take over your
role when you’re done. It will take time to figure out who the right person is, and to ease them
gradually into more responsibilities. But companies are healthiest when they’re not dependent on
individuals, and active champions often burn out, or, sometimes, wear out their welcome.
Here are some rules of thumb for face-to-face ownership communication.
- Get the basics of your ownership plan down cold. You’ll feel better about challenging factual misconceptions.
- Feel free to say “I don’t know, but I’ll find out” when people ask a question about the plan. Mistakes
drain your credibility faster than anything else.
- Don’t avoid bad news.
- Do your best to follow the “no surprises” principle.
- Listen first, then talk. When someone says something hostile, maybe even crazy, they’re not going to
listen to your response--at least, not until they know you’ve listened to them.
- Be patient--this is a long road with lots of setbacks and detours.
Some facts about ownership psychology might be useful. These are mostly taken from data we’ve collected using
the Ownership Culture Survey, and more articles about all these points are
available for free at www.ownershipassociates.com.
- Employee-ownership creates employee wealth. Recent research shows that the average employee-owner
has more retirement assets than the average non-employee owner.
- Middle managers and supervisors are essential. They are the “face” of the company to most people,
but they’re in a difficult “in between” position, and they are more likely to be cynical than average.
Anything you can do to make them comfortable with the ownership plan and with your activities will pay off.
- Companies can succeed. Our research shows that some companies have dramatically reduced the number
of cynics, and completely eliminated some types of cynicism.
- Success is never 100%. Even in successful companies, not all employees, or even most, are
enthusiastic believers. And that’s OK.
And finally: your efforts matter. You are doing the hard work to make our employee-ownership movement strong.