high-performing teams

Establishing An Ownership Culture Within Your Team

I was in a meeting with my client (let’s call her Jane), one of her direct reports (let’s call her Martha), Martha’s coach, and someone from HR. As you have probably already guessed, it was one of those meetings. Weeks earlier, Jane had learned that Martha was gossiping about her to other people on the team.  How did she learn about it?  Not one, not two, but three people on Martha’s team had gone to Jane and shared how uncomfortable they felt around Martha.  All three shared how raw and wounded Martha seemed to them.  Two out of the three stated that the ongoing gossip was having a negative effect on the team.

Jane had tried to talk to Martha one-on-one.  She listened carefully, paraphrased what she heard, owned what she could own, but held firm on areas that were Martha’s responsibility. However, Martha refused to accept responsibility. Later, Jane shared with me that all she had gotten during that one-on-one was “defensiveness and political posturing.”  When the gossiping continued, Jane tried a couple of different ways to help mend the relationship between herself and Martha, but nothing worked.

Martha’s coach reached out to me and we, with permission from our respective clients, had an open dialogue as to how we could help them reconcile. Although our conversation was enlightening and productive, we closed the conversation realizing that Martha’s lack of desire to own responsibility and work for change would be an ongoing source of trouble.

The team Jane leads is a shining star in her company.  It wasn’t always that way.  When Jane started with the team she earned a 33% engagement score. (For those of you who don’t know, that is a terrible score. It shows how little the team felt motivated and empowered, or how little they enjoyed the work they were doing.)  Within two years that engagement score went up to 88% and in the third year it went up to 97%--a feat no other team in their company had ever accomplished in such a short time span.

Jane was feeling a lot of pressure to maintain the engagement score, and she feared that because of Martha’s clout with the team, the turnaround story of her team was being threatened.

So now we are all together in a room and HR is involved.

What happened?

Martha chose to sit at the head of the table.  Jane was to her left.  Martha’s coach was to her right.  HR was behind Jane.  I was behind Martha’s coach, but because of the angle of the table and the fact that I was sitting a little farther back than the man from HR, I could see everyone’s reactions as the conversation progressed.

Jane opened and tried to set the stage for a constructive conversation. She expressed gratitude to Martha, was humble, real, authentic, vulnerable, and owned the parts that she felt were off.  She also shared the steps she was taking and would be taking to correct those parts.

Martha kept interrupting.  Her voice was raised almost to the point of yelling. I am pretty sure if someone walked by the office, they could have heard, even though the door was closed.

The reactions from the observers in the room were really different.  At times, HR was shocked.  Martha’s coach was noticeably nervous, and at times she tried to interject to help Martha gain some emotional self-control.

I was really surprised that Martha was as brutal and brazen as she was in front of HR.

Despite everyone’s attempts, Martha refused to own any part of what she had done.  She blame shifted, minimized, rationalized and made excuses.

When it finally hit Martha that she may lose the leadership of her team, she offered to stop talking about Jane to her team and to work to mend the relationship.

However, although there were some superficial changes, the relationship between Martha and Jane never improved, and team members noticed that Martha’s decision-making, leadership, and engagement went into the tank.

Jane escalated steps to resolve the tension, but to no avail.  Martha saw the writing on the wall.  Three months later she took a different role in the company, which had nothing to do with Jane’s team.  A year later Martha’s role was eliminated and she started her own company.

The Role of Ownership

In short, Martha formed some destructive beliefs about Jane.  Despite solid evidence to the contrary, Martha became entrenched in those beliefs.

The more entrenched she became, the less she was able to hear Jane or anyone else on her team.

Having witnessed a few other situations like this, I can see one clear difference between those that were successfully reconciled and this one.  In the ones that were reconciled,  there was ownership.

Ownership takes place when you accept responsibility for your role in a problem and express it to those involved without trying to “market” yourself.  That is, there is no blame shifting, excuse making, minimizing, etc.  It can be as uncomplicated as saying, “I did X.”  Simple short sentences are often key.

The first step on the way to change is real ownership.  Ownership leads to humility.  Humility is key to being teachable.  When we are teachable, we can learn how to make the changes we need to make.

When someone owns what they did, they lower their guard and become vulnerable.  This can make ownership feel too risky.

However, when most people hear clear, authentic ownership, they feel hope.  That hope leads to a desire to protect and help the one who owned make the necessary changes.  Moreover, we want to forgive them.

I have seen some people not own and make changes, but I often wonder how deep those changes go. Sometimes the change seems superficial, made only because of the threat of loss.  It is more like a dam that is holding back water.  Once the threat is removed, the dam breaks and all the stored-up wrath floods not only the one who offended them, but their entire team as well.

This level of toxicity kills engagement and productivity, and impacts results.

Chew On This:


  • What do you need to own?  What short phrase captures what you need to own?


Ryan C. Bailey is an Executive Coach who helps business leaders develop in-demand high performing teams.

*This blog is an amalgamation of a few different clients.  No one single client is being singled out.

How to Hold A High Standard While Being Gracious

how-to-hold-a-high-standard-while-being-graciousHigh performing teams will draw out the best in their team members. However, it’s impossible to do that without holding them to a high standard. Upholding a high standard requires tact and skill. You need to be careful how you explain the standard, and how you enforce it.

If you come on too strong, you run the risk of intimidating the team, making them afraid to take risks, or forcing them to hide their mistakes.

If you come on too weak, the team may not get your message full-strength or respect you.

Here are six ways to approach your team with a standard and grace:

1. If you present the high standard in an attitude of belief in your direct reports (you know they can achieve and maintain it), you are more apt to win their confidence and avoid creating a fear of failure.

2. Be clear in defining and explaining the standard, and confident that it is achievable, then solicit your direct report’s input on how they want the team to achieve it.  What is excellent to you may not be excellent to each member of your team. Your team wants to know your definition. Please be sure to make it as tangible as possible so that everyone knows when it is achieved. Some examples may include the percentage you want sales to increase, or how much you want to see their engagement score increase by.  Once it is clear what the standard is, it is time to see their ingenuity at work. How do they want to achieve it?  By listening carefully to their response, you will not only learn a lot about them but also about how to improve your style of achieving excellence.

3. Implement a flexible leadership style. It is time to adjust your style to your team according to their personality type. How do they work best?  What helps them be successful?  What energizes them?  What frustrates them?  What stresses them out?  How do they want to be held accountable to the work?  (You should not be the accountability partner here; instead, encourage them to own the project. Instead of checking in with them half way through the project, they could let you know halfway through.) Where are they likely to fall short and how can they best overcome those shortfalls? How do you want to be updated?  These are all questions to consider. When you use a flexible leadership style, you set them up for success.

4. Be clear on what the priorities are and share the reason why, so they gain more of a strategic mindset.

5. Review review review. Have a review time with your direct report. What's working great?  Can it be systematized?  For some ideas on that, look at the book, E-Myth Revisited. If you can get it into best practice form, that will pay dividends for you and your team. What's not working well?  How could it be improved? Some go with a “top 3 things going well” and then a “top 3 things to improve” review.

6. Now the key to maintaining the high standard is what happens when the team falls short of the high standard. It is important not to lower the standard to mediocrity, or else your team will become mediocre. Instead, move towards showing grace.  This is a time to show a high degree of empathy and to lead with appropriate vulnerability. This is a great time for both you and your direct report to look for ways to improve. Since you made sure the standard was achievable, you want to move towards a solid debrief. I would encourage the direct report to write how they should have done things differently, and you can refine their thoughts so that you both have principles for the future

Holding a high standard is essential. So is showing grace when the standard is not met. The key is to keep believing in your direct report until they show they cannot perform their role or are unwilling to grow in their role.

Chew On This:

  • What would your team be like if they were fighting for the higher standard while knowing that they would be met with grace if they came up short?

Ryan Bailey is an Executive Coach who specializes advancing excellence in leadership and across business teams.