Psychological Ownership in the Workplace

Understanding the Negative Impacts of Psychological Ownership in the Workplace

Understanding the Negative Impacts of Psychological Ownership in the Workplace

The Negative Side of Psychological Ownership

Cognitive biases or confused thinking – Employees may not understand straightforward directions because of an overvalued ownership stake. This overvaluing can we start with a perceived threat to their ownership when there was no threat.  Such as a jealous guy who gets upset when a guy innocently says hi to his girlfriend.  It ay be the opposite, and if they try to exercise or impose their ownership when it is inappropriate.  Such as a certified employee who tries to apply the certification to an unsuited task.

Shift in values – employees may shift their values to those who have similar ownerships or to the value of the gang that the employee belongs to. Parents often encounter this with their teenagers, who hang around others with different values. 

Emotional outburst – when the ownership stake is threatened or praised, the employee may become emotionally unstable and have emotional outbursts. Such as an individual who invests an enormous amount of themselves in their ownership stake and receives an award. An example is an individual who has spent energy and effort preparing for and participating in an activity. 

For example, preparing for and upon completing the marathon reacts emotionally—Similarly, an individual who feels that their ownership stake is threatened has a temper tantrum.

Reluctance to share ideas – Individual who perceives status because of their ownership stake may be reluctant to empower others with information. We see this with employees who receive special consideration because of their knowledge. Such employees may share information with those outside their team but not within the team. We say that such an employee knows where the bones are buried.

Resistance to change – It is said that it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks; this is partly due to the individual’s unwillingness to change in the risk that they may lose their current ownership stake. I can remember one employee at a client’s location that they called Mr. Fix-it. When he was promoted to project manager, he often let the project slip to fix some furniture.  Even after explaining to him that his time was too valuable to be fixing furniture.  He was told to find a new Mr. Fix-it or outsource it. While he agreed, he continued to let his project slip so he could repair things. Eventually, he was let go after several of his projects failed to meet expectations.

Being territorial – employees may become territorial in different ways. Some may take an ownership stake in a particular spot in the cafeteria.  Others may take an ownership stake in a specific piece of office equipment.  Yet others may take ownership of the territory or area of knowledge.  

Rejecting new team members – Some team members reject new members when they feel their ownership stake is threatened. An example is when a rookie is rejected, when adding to a high-functioning team.  Unfortunately, we see this too often when someone who is not like the other team members is added to the team.  An example of this is when a female is added to a male team. Such as when a female enters a male-dominated career, like the woman truck driver who is rejected because she is not a man.

Shunning Outsiders – We see this when an individual from a different culture is treated poorly. I can remember going to the store with a friend who had a thick accent from another country. We went to buy his wife a birthday present. The store clerk shunned my friend but was very nice to me.  Whenever my friend asked a question, the clerk would answer back to me.

Unwillingness to accept new information or ideas – we sometimes say that a person is closed-minded when unwilling to take further information. They often perceive the information as either wrong, not trustworthy, or a threat to their ownership stake.  In the last few years, we’ve seen a lot of this around COVID-19 and the vaccines for COVID-19.

Developing an obsession – some employees develop an obsession with their ownership stake, much like a child and their favorite blanket or toy that they won’t let go of and want it with them all the time. A funny example of developing an obsession with an ownership stake is how Milton in the TV show The Office relates to his stapler.

Avoid growth and progression – Unfortunately, some employees have great potential but avoid growth and progression opportunities in favor of staying where their ownership stake resides.

Failure to trust others or delegate responsibility – Some employees will not allow anyone to do specific tasks as they feel they are the expert and that there are the only ones who can do an adequate job. I’ve seen this in several clients, where a high-performing individual becomes a bottleneck because they refuse to delegate.  The individual often says, “I can do it faster myself than teaching someone else.”

Managing the Negative Side of Psychological Ownership

– Feeling their psychological ownership is threatened

– Having an avoidance orientation as opposed to a goal orientation

– Feeling psychological un-safe

– Overvaluing the item of psychological ownership

Kubler Ross Change Curve

Denial: In the denial stage, the individual will put up their defenses to deflect the risk, being more passive-aggressive.

Anger: in the second stage, the individual may become emotional and hostile to those that represent the threat.

Bargaining: During this stage, the individual may attempt to compromise to save some of the psychological ownership.

Depression: The individual may give up hope entirely, lose all motivation, and be discouraged and frustrated.

Acceptance: the individual comes to terms with the reality of the change and may begin to explore the opportunities offered by the change.

During the denial stage, the individual will need reassurance. Through transparent and clear communication of what is happening and the value to the business and stakeholders.  It is essential to include the individual’s impact and psychological ownership stake.

During the anger stage, the individual may become hostile and self-destructive. The individual must be given a safe space and opportunity to express their frustration and opinions.

Throughout the transformation, the individuals must understand that a dip in quality and productivity is expected and accept it. The individuals need to receive training and reassurance throughout this process.

As the individuals begin to accept the change and become motivated, it is essential to celebrate the process. Set small and easily achievable milestones along the path to transformation and celebrate each time a milestone is met.  Failure to do this could result in the individuals falling back into their old ways.

Focus on the work

Focus on the individual

Focus on the management style

Start by breaking the work into small, simple steps. These small steps will initially show down productivity, but in time, they will increase productivity and value of the individuals.  With each set, stop and examine the output, look for learning opportunities that may initially appear as failures.  Take the time to adjust the process and the result, and record the changes needed to improve the operations and quality of the solution.  As the process and quality improve, celebrate the win.  Set longer-term goals with short milestones and celebrate the passage of each milestone on the way to the longer-term goal.

Takes smaller steps – Encourage the individual to take small steps with lots of feedback cycles to learn quickly from their failures and move forward.

Build a plan – Encourage the individual to create a plan with a high level of detail for the immediate activities in fewer details for the future activities.

Work with the individual to set goals on accomplishing other tasks, providing them with the training and reassurance that they can do it. Explain to them the importance of taking on the new tasks and how they will positively impact their future.

Work with the individual to look at the possible outcomes of new and challenging assignments. Have them identify ways to reduce the risks, including the above step.  Encourage the individual to look at the positive side of things and then plan ways to achieve the positive.  As they start to succeed, encourage the individual to try it independently.

Provide safe one-on-one coaching – provide unjudgmental coaching that includes guidance on the correct procedures and then encourages the individual to practice.

Recognize that failure is a common and acceptable way to learn – teach that failure is a common and acceptable way to learn, particularly when the failure is small and early on.

Coach a the employee – after having provided basic training on a process, have the individual coach another in the process.

Peer up to document the process – have the individual pair up with another to document the process.

As a manager, it is essential to remove all threats in communications when working with individuals with an avoidance orientation, be clear and transparent, and keep your words. As a manager, it is critical to build a relationship of trust with the individual and adopt a servant leadership management style. 

Practicing servant leadership which means focusing on empowering and strengthening the individual team members by:

– Respecting the uniqueness of the individuals

– Removing obstacles to empower the individuals and team

– Listening to what they have to say.

Rather than micromanage the team, give them a mission and let them figure out how they will accomplish the mission.

Encourage the team to problem-solve together, with equal input from all team members.

Avoid threatening in any way.

Take a look at our eBook “Building Psychological Safety” and our team learning activities on the Agile Site, such as:

– Ping Pong Dialogue will help the talkative team members learn patience while those who contribute less to speak up and contribute more.

– A-B Solutioning will help the team be more creative and engaged in problem-solving

Assign team members who have an avoidance orientation to work collectively with a partner. Encourage them to work together.  Over time, include parts of the area they are to adopt in their scope of responsibility.  As they become proficient in their new areas, remove components of their ownership area.

The negative side of psychological ownership is often, but not always, linked to team members who do not feel psychologically safe.

Psychological safety is a feeling that one can share their ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes without fearing negative consequences to their self-image, status, or career.

Psychological ownership can lead to more emotionally driven behaviors and less judgment-driven behaviors.  emotionally driven behaviors can lead to acting without thinking through the consequences.  An example of negative psychological ownership is an employee who refuses to adopt a revised procedure that replaces one that the employee had created and has served the company well for some time.  

Another is an employee who misbehaves when a coworker takes the employee’s proceed spot in the cafeteria. Those who exercise the negative side of psychological ownership tend to focus more on avoiding adverse effects and preserving consistency and are often more defensive.

Some common negative sides of psychological ownership include:

To manage the negative side of psychological ownership, you will want to identify the underlying cause and address it. The four common causes for expressing the negative side of psychological ownership are:

  • Addressing the Underlying Causes of Negative Psychological Ownership.
  • Feeling their Psychological Ownership is Threatened
  • When there is a change, it is common to think that one psychological ownership is at risk.  
  • This feeling is explained in the Kübler-Ross Change Curve – the stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

Steps to Lessen the Risk

Lessen the Impact of Avoidance Orientation

Avoidance Orientation

Having an avoidance orientation instead of a goal orientation will often lead to negative expressions of psychological ownership.  Individuals that are avoidance orientated may develop negative behaviors. For example, they may be reluctant to share ideas, resistant to change or fail to delegate responsibility. Individuals with an avoidance orientation try to avoid failure and hide skill weaknesses.  They often avoid taking on new assignments, worrying that they might not be able to learn the new task, and may even avoid their regular tasks if they feel that they might fail.  Their goal is to avoid performing poorly or failing.

Steps to Lessen the Impact of Avoidance Orientation

There are three areas of focus that will help the individual move away from an avoidance orientation. The three areas are:

  • Focus On The Work
  • Focus On the Individual
  • Focus On The Management Style

Building Psychological Safety

Feeling psychologically unsafe leads to a negative mindset, which results in feelings of being threatened or underappreciated.  

Steps to Build Psychological Safety

Managers can address this by applying the following:

  • Lessen the Impact of Overvaluing Ownership
  • When individuals overvalue an ownership stake, they obsess with it and let it get in the way of completing higher-value tasks.
  • Steps to Lessen the Impact of Overvaluing Ownership

If you notice any of the negative impacts of psychological ownership in your workplace, take action to manage them. Use the strategies discussed in this blog to manage employees' behavior and create a positive work environment.

To learn more about psychological ownership and how to develop and manage it see our free eBook:

“Psychological Ownership – How it affects your team’s effectiveness and how to manage it”