Organizations creating a sense of ownership and delegating challenging tasks for developmental reasons will benefit from investing in their people.
In the A/E/C industry, we frequently talk about the “war for talent.” Often this war is described as the increasingly salient need for capable and skilled workers to fill key leadership and technical positions. In the wake of the Great Recession (which resulted in a significant volume of skilled labor leaving the construction industry altogether), and in the midst of the retiring baby boomer crisis (which will result in many vacant critical leadership positions), companies in the construction industry will continue to struggle to find great talent and fill key positions.
But the war for talent goes far beyond your company’s ability to attract, recruit and select great talent. One of the most important tactics to win the talent war is investing in retaining the great talent you already have.
Interestingly, the road to winning the war for talent is somewhat cyclical. By investing in the people who are already on your payroll, you are likely to foster their commitments to stay in your organization as well as to engage them in attracting and recruiting great talent externally. Talented employees who are happy with the organization and who feel they are valued are excellent recruiting resources of other great talent.
Organizations need to understand that the opinions of their employees carry weight with potential future candidates. Through sites like glassdoor.com, it’s become easy for people to share their work experiences with others. Focusing on fostering the growth and commitment of your existing talent is an overlooked avenue for improving organizational recruiting and selection. With so many retention tactics to choose from, leaders can quickly become overwhelmed. What’s a good starting point to encourage your talented workforce to stay? Many industry organizations have found there are two key behaviors that leaders can do to encourage their best talent to stay: (1) create ownership and (2) delegate challenging tasks.
Rent or Own?
Drawing on research on what motivates and fulfills us in our working lives, it’s clear that people feel more committed to stay in roles where they experience a sense of autonomy and ownership over the work they perform.1 In fact, compared to traditional command and control environments, companies that foster ownership have one-third of the turnover rates.2 To help understand the power of ownership, consider how people typically treat rental cars versus their own cars. If you’re like most people, you treat a rental car far worse than you would treat your own car (i.e., you probably won’t take a rental car to the car wash or worry about oil changes). Like jobs where we have little control, we don’t feel compelled to go above and beyond caring for the rental car because we don’t own it. We just need to make sure we return it in good enough shape not to incur additional fees. Do people in your organization treat their tasks and projects like their own car or like a rental?
In an increasingly lean working environment characterized by high workload demands, creating ownership in your talent is also like giving your best employees a safety net and preventing them from burning out. In fact, research suggests that when we experience a strong sense of ownership, we are more resilient in the face of stress and overload.3 This is because people feel more in control of their destinies — they have something that’s theirs, and they feel an increased responsibility to see it through to completion. Without a sense of ownership, people just follow orders and are more likely to burn out. What can leaders do to create ownership? A major part of autonomy is having the will to make choices. Where appropriate, encourage a culture where your best talent has some decision-making authority over how or what it accomplishes at work. In a regional or national A/E/C firm, project locations tend to foster such autonomy naturally. Multilocation, decentralized firms have similar ease. With smaller firms working on projects in near proximity, greater effort will be required to create the degree of healthy autonomy needed by top performers. What choices (even small ones) could you give your employees?
Optimizing the Ownership Mentality
To increase ownership, leaders also need to clarify the expectations for the end goal. However, dictating every step on the way to that goal will kill all sense of autonomy — to foster ownership, give your people an opportunity to chart their own path. Ask yourself: Are you managing and clarifying the outcomes and letting people find their own methods for completing the tasks? Many leaders feel a sense of unease that comes with letting go of work and trusting their talent to make important decisions and see projects through to completion. When employees take on new tasks, there may be some initial setbacks or failures. Leaders must build milestones or checkpoints into any project — that way, they are available if help is needed, but they aren’t micromanaging every aspect of the task. Micromanagement can suffocate any benefits of minority ownership.
The second key behavior is delegating challenging tasks. By delegating challenging tasks (especially those that are meaningful to the person you are delegating them to), you are harnessing another critical driver of motivation and a force that keeps talent committed. No matter the line of work, people generally want to feel a sense of mastery and growth; when we are given tasks that challenge us (and mean something to us), we feel more attached to the work, our team and our organization. The critical component here is to delegate challenging tasks that will benefit the individual. All too often, leaders “dump” unwanted or mundane tasks on their people and feel surprised when they don’t thank them for the opportunity. True delegation is about the person receiving the task — what skills does he or she need to learn or challenges does he or she need to overcome for his or her own personal development?
Delegating challenging tasks for the sake of fostering employee development and growth is a great tool for retaining talent and encouraging overall company health. When done appropriately, delegating challenging and meaningful tasks not only encourages the mastery and growth of your employees, but also enables your own growth and mastery, enhancing your skills to think about the business and your work more strategically. Most leaders in the industry are operating at one or two levels below the strategic level at which they should be. For a moment, think about all the tasks you are currently responsible for right now. Are all those tasks appropriate for someone at your level of leadership? If you’re like most people, you are currently doing work that your direct reports could (and should) be doing. That is a great place to start when considering what to delegate.
Offloading Key Tasks
Giving employees ownership and delegating challenging work can be a bit frightening for leaders who have traditionally held on tightly to their own projects, especially the difficult ones. When an employee takes on a new task or responsibility, he or she may make mistakes the first time out. The problem is that when some leaders detect these mistakes, they swoop in and take over. This “helicopter rescue” approach is counterproductive because it teaches direct reports nothing. It takes great leadership to have the patience to help teach, coach and mentor people through obstacles so they can master the delegated tasks. Though this approach may require more time and patience from you as a leader, it will pay dividends once the employee learns how to successfully accomplish the task.
In this post-Great-Recession landscape, organizations are looking for ways to gain a competitive advantage over their competitors. In the coming years, as the war for talent heats up, organizations that create a sense of ownership at every level of the company and delegate challenging tasks for developmental reasons will benefit from their investments in their own people. It’s significantly cheaper to retain the employees you already have, rather than having to seek out, interview, hire and train new employees. If your people aren’t taking ownership over their tasks or aren’t getting stretch assignments for developmental purposes, then, when applied, those are two critical leadership skills that will start paying off immediately.
Emily Nowacki is a staff consultant with FMI Corporation. She can be reached at 303.398.7216 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tim Tokarczyk is a consultant with FMI Corporation. He can be reached at 303.398.7222 or via email at email@example.com.
1 Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. Contemporary educational psychology, 25, 54-67.
2 Pink, D. H. (2010). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us.
3 Karasek Jr, R. A. (1979). Job demands, job decision latitude, and mental strain: Implications for job redesign. Administrative science quarterly, 285-308.