The double nature of ownership

What does it mean to take ownership? Dr Laura Olcelli ruminates.

Reading time: 5m 30s.

For better or worse, I’ve been pondering ownership lately. In English, of course.

Because in Italian – and also the other Romance languages – there’s no clear-cut difference between ownership (when used figuratively), responsibility and accountability. The various equivalents of responsibility are simply used instead.

As Ludwig Wittgenstein famously said, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world”.

But both in the UK and in other countries where English is widely used in business, more and more clients seem interested in integrating ownership into their customer communication. At the same time, I often come across poor examples of ownership by some of the companies I deal with in my personal life.

Why is this concept so challenging to express, either in words or actions, in the commercial world?

A close-knit trio

It’s not uncommon to see ownership figure among companies’ core values.

Organisations that choose ownership as a core value really need to make it part of their DNA.

For example, in a list of the United States’ top 25 workplaces for 2016–17, 32% of organisations included something along the lines of ‘ownership mentality’,  ‘own outcomes’ or ‘own it’. Other times, responsibility and accountability are there instead. Together, these virtue words make a close-knit trio, with responsibility and accountability receiving most attention.  

Even when ownership doesn’t make it to the podium of a company’s core values, it’s still likely to be drilled into front-line staff during customer service training programmes, which shows how significant it is.

What it is and isn’t                                                                                    

Let’s see an antonymic definition first. Suppose the airline company you flew with blames the schedule change on their partner airline. The partner airline says they acted within their time limits and tells you to raise the concern with your travel agency. And the travel agent insists it’s the original airline’s fault and it’s got nothing to do with them.

So the circle starts again – the only constant being the customer is always the victim. On all fronts. This is the opposite of the ‘ownership trio’. Ownership is not passing the buck, hiding behind rules, or being indifferent and detached. What is it then?                                                                                                                                        

I believe there are two ways of looking at ownership. The long shot and the close-up, to put it in photographic jargon. The bigger picture is an organisation’s culture; it’s a proactive sense of obligation and commitment for whatever happens in its business: from delivering on the promises to admitting the mistakes.


But ownership is then passed from the decision makers to the front-line staff – who actually are the voice of the company, especially as far as the customers are concerned. So, zooming in, ownership is the advisors’ ability to treat a customer’s concern as if it were their own – or the concern of someone they cared for.

This, at least, in an ideal world. In reality, a series of barriers can get in the way during this figurative transferral.

  • The company vision and values are not always communicated clearly to all staff, at all levels, so they’re left in the dark – about ownership, for instance.
  • Staff know that ownership is a company’s value, but they’re not engaged, so they ‘don’t care’.
  • Staff who interact with customers are not trained adequately, so they don’t know how to convey ownership.
  • The company’s values may seem true only in abstract terms, because policies / regulations mostly prevent a real sense of ownership from coming to the surface.

Two lessons

There are two lessons to be learnt.

Although ownership may come with strings attached (e.g. loss of face, extra costs, etc.), organisations that choose ownership as a core value really need to make it part of their DNA. Because it’s the savvy 21st-century customers who will eventually judge whether businesses are true to themselves or not.

So first, a company’s vision and values must be communicated effectively to all employees. In this way, they’ll live and breathe the brand from day one. Companies have a moral obligation to honour their values, and this needs to start internally.

Second, staff must be empowered, through training, to express ownership. Developmental programmes need, on the one hand, to change mindsets (‘why should I take ownership?’), and to provide an advanced communication toolkit on the other (‘how can I express ownership?’).

From a linguistic viewpoint, by getting to know the brand and using smart communication to reflect it, advisors can learn to interact with customers as best they can. (Also when they deliver bad news messages – those where company policies may hinder ownership.) And psychologically, advisors can experience an enhanced sense of control and job satisfaction.

Ownership in customer communication

Ultimately then, how will ownership sound, look and feel like in customer communication? Just like its definition, there’s no easy single formula.

It’ll certainly sound positive, empathetic and warm. For example, ‘I’m so sorry things didn’t go as they should have, especially since customer service is at the heart of our business. Let me look into what happened. It may take a little while, but I promise you will hear back from me by the end of the day.’

It’ll look as if the advisor, and by extension the company, took the customer’s query at heart; this might mean acknowledging a fault, going the extra mile, following through, and just breaking out of the usual comfort zone.

It’ll be a step ahead of duty, responsibility and even accountability. That’s because ownership cannot be imposed upon anyone; it must be actively taken and so it’s more closely linked to individual ethics.

By doing all the right things, customers will feel the company is on their side, and advisors more gratified with what they’ve done. A win-win for all.   


About the Author

Dr Laura Olcelli is a consultant and award-winning author interested in all things language. She works for T2 Linguistics.



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