‘Building Back Better’ requires us to understand ‘ownership’ at work and its links to authentic participation  


COVID-19 has resulted in unprecedented levels of both government funding and restrictions to our daily life. While health and care systems and their workers have adapted to the new environment, Whitehall has introduced further centralised command and control measures.  However comforting these approaches are in a crisis; they are unlikely to be effective in delivering better care or be welcomed by staff, patients or stakeholders in the long-term. As new forms of service models emerge, understanding how to develop greater staff ownership over work (and the centrality of employee-engagement) is vital. 

Studies conducted before (and during) the pandemic can provide important insights. Traditionally, ownership has been considered as either a:

  1. legal phenomena (such as investors possessing company equity). Or a
  2. managerial tool for ensuring that staff accept responsibility to solve problems (‘taking ownership’ and ‘buying-into’ corporate plans).

However, research tells us that staff saw ownership differently, often referring to a psychological state in which they felt attached to their organisation and/or work. Appreciating psychological ownership (and how it can be encouraged) is helpful therefore in ensuring that ‘Build Back Better’ is more than a slogan.

Taking real-life examples from both employee-owned enterprises and the public sector, this summary describes the ways staff made sense of ownership and how we might link owning your day-to-day work, attachment to our employing organisation and perceptions of the authenticity of participation.


How did staff understand ‘ownership’ at work?

By asking, what does ownership mean to you? how do you feel about your job and organisation? And how we might increase ownership over work? We found top-down direction maybe tolerated but ultimately it is demoralising and disempowering.

Research during the pandemic has revealed how staff feel disengaged with both decisions made by policy hierarchies and local management action. Feelings of exclusion are paramount together with low levels of attachment to formal structures and an increased perception of a gap between frontline staff and others (‘they are not telling us because they don’t want to set hares racing, but that’s just an excuse’). 

When asked what ownership at work ‘should’ mean; many staff articulate attachment to, possession of and identification with their own work and organisation. 

These perceptions of psychological ownership were more than a high degree of conscientiousness and personal pride in service quality, but a sense of collective endeavour with fellow workers and driven by perceptions of control ‘over my work’

Seeing ownership as psychological phenomena did not mean staff focused on finding solutions to problems pre-determined by others.  Attachment (and the discretionary effort that followed) was not a free good to be captured by management. For staff what mattered was the psychological state of being engaged as an ongoing process (‘Its ours because we are consulted on a lot of things’). (In contrast, some managers and stakeholders saw doing engagement as an approach to managing the workforce). 

Overall psychological ownership was achieved when staff perceived engagement to be authentic. And this assessment was shaped by a sense of what ‘should’ happen, namely:

  1. fair processes where employees have a voice (or procedural justice)
  2. positive impact on patients/service users’ outcomes and equal distribution of organisational benefits (or distributive justice).
  3. extensive information-sharing and dialogue (or greater transparency).
  4. recognition of equal respect regardless of pay levels, specialist knowledge and job-tasks (or status as a precondition for engagement)

Several studies have also shown participation is positively associated with psychological ownership and in turn employees with attachment participate with a high degree of altruistic spirit, demonstrate more commitment and share knowledge. Ownership over work clearly supports notions of ‘meaningful and good work’.

For example, nurses often defined ‘owning’ their work as accepting (and carrying out) their responsibilities to care for patients; advocating for their holistic needs and expertly coordinating care so they achieve the best possible treatment regardless of organisational boundaries or policy/management priorities.

Interestingly, staff were not naïve. They did not shy away from the complexities of strategic decision-making nor the difficulty of consensus building and coordinating diverse services. Staff did not seek to participate without accepting responsibility and neither did they accept responsibility without genuine involvement. Endeavours to persuade staff to take accountability for performance without altering power-relations were rarely successful.

Employee-owners had more positive views on the authenticity of their engagement (‘I feel the organisation is mine and my colleagues, we own it..so we are very passionate). Many did not simply have responsibility to (or worked in) the organisation; they felt they were the organisation. (‘You engage because you feel you are not just being told what to do things as cheaply as possible’).

If psychological ownership is a good thing, how do we increase it?

Firstly, all stakeholders need to understand the stages involved in building psychological ownership outlined above. Although there is much to be written about the practical actions to be taken, by looking through the prism of psychological ownership clear principles emerge:

Develop a sense of equality, encourage self-confidence and a sense of place. Rather than a one-off event, long-term capacity building programmes are needed to embed the skills required for staff to participate.  

Engagement is not just about doing things more efficiently. Authenticity is achieved if staff are involved in discussing the rationale, purpose and outcomes of services rather than merely the most productive means for delivering targets. 

Challenge assumptions that participation is about getting staff ‘buy-in’. We need to move beyond trying to ‘manufacture consent’ and consider the structural barriers that restrict involvement.  

Be creative and look beyond staff representation on management boards. Some organisations have used citizen-juries (where staff are identified by-lot across departments irrespective of pay, grade and profession) to consider important issues.

Others have used a wide range of Tech tools to collate staff feedback, distribute ‘As Is’ data, analyse real-time information and devise new solutions. Overall, these approaches increase knowledge sharing, improve the openness and speed of decision-making and make for more effective recommendations. 


Dr Aaron Gain is a researcher and adviser focusing on employee / stakeholder engagement and new forms of business models and alternative organisations.