What the actual f*ck does "taking ownership" mean in a work context?
March 4, 2020 10:08 PM   Subscribe

Hi! I'm well past my umpteenth job and now in an independent contractor role. I've recently been told that I need to "take more ownership" in the context of my work duties. Clearly I don't know what the hell this actually means, because I've been getting the same feedback for 10 years from different people, and I guess nothing's changed.

I think I understand what it is in theory - taking responsibility, driving projects forward. But apparently I just never do that *enough.* I've been told I ask too many questions, that I need to push back more when given direction that doesn't make sense, that I need to be entrepreneurial, that I need to question more, that I need to speak up and charge forward without asking for permission.

I'm gonna be honest with y'all: "taking ownership" sounds like it's for privileged rich people who have nothing to lose by constantly questioning their bosses' intentions/directions/tactics. It also feels like a way for authority figures to offload their responsibilities, failures, and lack of vision onto me without extra pay, recognition, or power. I know I need to get past these hangups to succeed; I'm having a lot of trouble with it.

My version of "taking ownership" ends up looking like this: figuring everything out by myself, staying up 24 hours to make sure a project gets done on a timeline that doesn't make sense to me, blaming myself for tactical failures. I just found out (yes! seriously? they didn't teach this in school) that it can also mean delegating, setting boundaries, and challenging others on their work. Who knew? And how the heck do you do that without getting fired?

I also get caught in this loop a lot: asking too many (apparently obvious) questions, but getting in trouble for not asking questions when I'm confused about something. Maybe this just means I'm an idiot. I have no idea at this point.

For context: I'm an early 30s POC/URM woman from a low-income household that lucked my tacky ass into a prestigious university (hated it) and ended up in a tech and entertainment career filled mostly with privileged white men and women. I have low self-esteem, I often apologize for no reason, and I suffer from anxiety and depression (though that's been fairly managed for the past several months through meditation and medication). I know this is all related, and I'm working on the self-esteem stuff - I hate conflict, and I hate being wrong or looking like a failure - and there's a certain degree of confidence needed to "push back" on direction you're given from an authority figure.

Long story short - can you guys point me to resources, blogs, whitepapers, books, famous therapists, ANYTHING that can help me sort this out? Or just general advice for someone who is complete trash at workplace stuff? (I'm aware of the irony of asking for pointers on this particular question. I'm seeking answers from people who have more mastery of this than I do.) It's hurting my professional life, and I really want to fix it. Not just in this current job, but in other work I pursue in the future.

Thank you!
posted by themaskedwonder to Work & Money (37 answers total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
This can differ a lot depending on organisational culture and your particular boss's take on it. See who around you is getting praised for taking ownership of their work and try to critically examine what they're doing differently than you.

Usually a part of it is being proactive - if you need inputs from other people, chase them down on your own, and if you have questions, try to rephrase them from "How do I X?" into "I want to do X the Y way, is this what you had in mind?". Yes, it involves taking the risk of being wrong or having others bristle at you, and pushing through those situations will help you find ways that work for you.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 10:22 PM on March 4 [10 favorites]

It can mean not asking the boss about small stuff but making decisions yourself and going with them. I think the trick is in figuring out what the small stuff is and also having confidence in your own judgments. A couple of recent examples where I would have preferred someone on my team to take more ownership - deciding to send a document for review with or without tracked changes on it (in that instance with would be better but no big deal either way) and discussing areas of interface with other specialists when developing a line to take on a technical matter (instead of needing me to push him every step of the way).

Apart from this, is most of your feedback usually positive? I think a lot of it comes down to confidence and hopefully you have received enough positive reinforcement in other areas of your work you could take confidence from. But also American work culture sucks, you're dealing with very real cultural issues, and it's not at all your fault you're feeling this way. A good manager would have given you more concrete feedback, also.

Finally, you didn't get lucky getting into a prestigious university - that doesn't happen. You were there because you deserved to be.
posted by hazyjane at 10:49 PM on March 4 [20 favorites]

Are you sure it's hurting your professional life? To some extent, you're going to get some variety of shit; it's kinda no-win that way. To me, this seems like a totally doable type of shit. Like "oh you're right I will work on that" and then smile and then just...don't. Don't! Fuck it!

Like, part of how racism and sexism work is by taking up all your time and happiness trying to meet standards that are literally impossible to meet. The other option is to just accept that you're going to get criticized and just...look at your paycheck and the fact that you made it in a dominantly white dude field and be like "ha ha suckers, still here!!!"
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 10:53 PM on March 4 [51 favorites]

It sounds like you understand the possible definitions pretty well--well enough to see they cover too much ground to be useful as a specific criticism. Like, as a lesson for people just starting out with these kinds of issues, sure, some illustrations of ownership are probably good models to look at. But you seem to be getting feedback that you do too much of X, too little of Y, etc., etc. under circumstances that make me wonder if people are grasping for ways to tell you--perhaps on some prejudicial basis--that working with you feels complicated. On the one hand, we're all complicated and so typically get that feedback at some point or other, and it's normal for other people to want us to present to them "easy" user interfaces / clear directions for getting us to make their problems disappear. On the other hand, it's also normal for other people to misjudge how much your personal attributes matter relative to the situation you're in, and you're probably fine and yet on the hook for their misdirected frustrations (which they still expect you to "own" too). From a distance, it's hard to guess what's more relevant, if this is even on point at all.
posted by Wobbuffet at 11:09 PM on March 4 [4 favorites]

White dude advising you here, was an employee in a number of places before changing to be a consultant. Part of being an effective consultant is convincing your clients that you know what you are doing and that you will be able to do it. Some of that is due to expertise but a lot of it is due to the kind of front that is, I guess, easier to project if you have grown up as a privileged male. From the clear, concise way you've phrased your post, I suspect the questions you are asking wouldn't be considered extraneous coming from somebody like me.

You mention that you have problems with low self esteem, anxiety and depression - and working on these issues will certainly help you. In terms of business resources, I'd recommend looking at some of the books on how to be a consultant. I like "Flawless Consulting" by Peter Block - but these others are worth considering too.
posted by rongorongo at 11:11 PM on March 4 [10 favorites]

["Taking ownership"] feels like a way for authority figures to offload their responsibilities, failures, and lack of vision onto me without extra pay, recognition, or power.

"Taking ownership" means treating yourself as a partner in the project, not as someone on a lower level being told what to do. The people telling you to step up rather than sit back are not trying to be an authority figure to you, but rather to bring you in as an equal* on getting things done. This is particularly true if you are working independently, because contractors are specifically supposed to shoulder these responsibilities. You're not a lackey employee punching a time card, you are someone brought in specifically to get things done and share their opinion.

* an equal within the context of the project, to the extent it's possible given broader economic/social realities, because the project has to get done now and can't wait until after the revolution

If you're not being properly compensated then that's a separate and valid discussion. But if you're getting paid (especially at contractor rates) then when multiple clients give you this feedback they're saying they're trying to give you power and recognition, but you're not taking it.

I also get caught in this loop a lot: asking too many (apparently obvious) questions, but getting in trouble for not asking questions when I'm confused about something. Maybe this just means I'm an idiot....I hate conflict, and I hate being wrong or looking like a failure

You're not an idiot. This is a relatable experience/feeling for a lot of career folks. Try not to beat yourself up about having these feelings, because they're normal and you can push through.

"Taking ownership" means having your own vision and plan for how the project will succeed, and doing whatever it takes to push that plan forward into reality. The people asking you to do this aren't "authority figures", they're your peers within the project. While they may lack vision, they recognize this fact and they're doing the correct thing to rectify it, which is to pay you for your thoughts. That means that if you have a question, you need to phrase it within the context of the project until you're either sure you understand or sure that they don't want to answer (which indicates a problem).

Pushing your project vision will mean, necessarily, getting into disagreements. Everyone needs to be diplomatic and pick their battles but it's imperative that if you see something that has to get done, then you bring it up to the team so that it gets done. "Taking ownership", especially as a contractor, means broadening the circle of those things from "things I've been directly and literally told are my tasks" to "anything that needs to get done or that may be an obstacle to success, regardless of whose job it is to fix".

Finally, very much in the spirit of "I know I need to get past these hangups to succeed", I feel like I need to gently push back on this point:

I'm gonna be honest with y'all: "taking ownership" sounds like it's for privileged rich people

While acknowledging your background, aren't you an alumni of a prestigious university? Aren't you in a prestigious tech & entertainment career? Are these not privileges?

It's true that the "taking ownership" concept is meant for people who want to prioritize work and career. To some extent that ties into capitalism and economic power dynamics and careerism and liberalism and all that. It's fine to have philosophical/political issues with that. And you're right that the opportunity to prioritize a job in order to reap the benefits of increased money and prestige is a privilege for people who are "rich" in some sense of the word. But you're that privileged person, getting that opportunity! You can decide not to take it, but I'm not sure who or what that would serve.
posted by daveliepmann at 11:22 PM on March 4 [52 favorites]

In my case, instruction to "take ownership" from my bosses meant "stop bothering us with things like asking for input and finish the project, solving the problems yourself" - the problems included managing the team or external contractors or clients - "while doing it more-or-less on time and on budget so we can be happy about the bottom line". Basically, being your own boss, at least for the project(s) assigned to you.
posted by gakiko at 11:39 PM on March 4 [6 favorites]

The common denominator of all the "taking ownership" in my career was planning. It didn’t matter who was involved or what was being done, as owner my job was to know exactly what resources were needed, exactly how long everything would take, and exactly what could go wrong.

That’s the baseline. Be an absolute expert on the project and everything to do with its past, present, and future. That last is impossible of course but hearing a plausible story about the future gives people warm fuzzies anyway.

The next step up was to not just have that information but to act on it — make sure the people (often myself) were given time to work on the project, push people to stick to their schedules, and head off potential problems before they happened.

You’ll notice that neither of these levels get involved with the actual work being done. They are Project Management.

Ownership can mean a lot more than this of course, but these are the basics that management expects from someone who owns a project/area.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 12:15 AM on March 5 [2 favorites]

I just found out (yes! seriously? they didn't teach this in school) that it can also mean delegating, setting boundaries, and challenging others on their work. Who knew? And how the heck do you do that without getting fired?

You are definitely hobbled by your background here.

The good news is, so was my father. He was raised in a Slovenian ghetto and emerged with no experience of the social class he was joining in industry. It was a rough adjustment — and one that involved therapy to work through inadequacy issues among other things. On the other hand he left industry twenty years later as a Senior VP of a Fortune 500 company.

He will tell you that the most important thing he lucked into was a mentor. He was adopted by someone right there, in the company, who could answer these questions. You don’t have to wait for luck. There’s a lot of advice out there on how to approach someone to be a mentor for you, and I think you would be pleasantly surprised at how eager people are to share their experience.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 12:42 AM on March 5 [11 favorites]

I too struggle with this taking ownership thing. Mostly because as a girl and poc I was raised to be compliant, non-confrontational and easy to get along with. Standing up for my idea of a good result (I work in PR) feels not only overly aggressive and scary but also pointless to me. If the client wants his X in purple stripes, I'm not going to argue too long, he's going to be the one living with the purple stripes, after all.
It also feels scary because for most of my life I have avoided taking responsibility for decisions I might get blamed for later. Having to explain myself for big mistakes that I did against other people's advice is, like, my worst nightmare.
None of this is healthy, so I'm working on it. It's torpedoing my career and neither my boss nor my clients need me to be a passive processer of tasks - they need me to stand up to them when they're wrong. In the meantime, these thoughts have helped me:

1) Everyone is my client: my actual clients but also my boss and some coworkers who need my deliverables.
2) As my boss says: Clients may know what they want, but never know what they actually need (or even what is actually possible)
3) It's my job to work out what they need and then sell it to them as what they want, clearing up possible misconceptions.
4) Because my success is measured in quantifiable ways (like, number of clippings). That means if I do exactly what the client wants and the numbers are bad at the end of the year, it will be my fault for not warning them (in writing and firmly) of this risk and strongly suggesting alternatives. If I push back and my way yields good results, the client's respect increases perceptibly and I am considered for raises.
5) Do you want a doctor (or architect, or other professional expert) who gives yes-and-no answers or tends to leave the choice up to you? No, you want someone who states his professional opinion in no uncertain terms and tells you she has x years of experience to back her up. People want to think of you as an authority on her subject, who knows better than them. You can only carry it off if you believe you are an authority and do know better, and are willing to signal it. In this job, you are penalised for diffidence, risk aversity and pleasing behaviour. (Obviously, some people have the opposite problem of coming off as arrogant assholes, but you're so far away from that you needn't worry about that now.) So pick a competent professional you respect and see if you can act a little more like them.
6) I don't need to go alpha animal on (all!) clients. In fact, as a woman that often backfires. I need to learn how to sell my idea in a way the client gets emotionally. That means speaking the client's language. That's a whole nother topic to do with mirroring and empathy. But what works for the boss will not work for the coworker etc.

There's an important caveat in that perhaps in your industry you'd be fucked no matter what you do, because you're a woman of colour. Perhaps you'll never do it right in white people's eyes. I think, however, since you're already getting negative feedback, you might as well experiment with these ideas to shake things up. If your next feedback happened to be "too assertive/aggressive", honestly, I'd count it as a success.
posted by Omnomnom at 1:06 AM on March 5 [27 favorites]

Oh, and to add one more point:
About fighting back and getting it wrong. In a healthy workplace, you survive wrong decisions by being able to explain what factors made it seem like a good decision and what you have now learnt and will do differently.
Men do it all the time. They are more confident about defending their decisions and boundaries because when they get it wrong, they're just experts who get it wrong once in a while. Human. If we get things wrong, everyone, including us, suddenly questions our competence.
I'm not sure how healthy your workplace is. Or whether this is helpful, but mistakes happen to successful people all the time.
posted by Omnomnom at 1:17 AM on March 5 [6 favorites]

It also feels like a way for authority figures to offload their responsibilities, failures, and lack of vision onto me without extra pay, recognition, or power. I know I need to get past these hangups to succeed; I'm having a lot of trouble with it.

Mr. Authority Figure here. Let me pull back the curtain a bit.

1) The job descriptions for higher pay grades are all about initiating things and leading projects. You will hit a distinct cap in your career if you’re not able to do these things.

2) As a good boss I want my employees to grow. I want them to be doing something that challenges them and furthers their career.

3) Also, in general it’s a lot easier to promote employees to a job they are already doing.

As an employee, number 3 is definitely tricky. It means you do have to take on responsibilities above your pay grade, and if you’re not careful about it you’ll be stuck with them without a matching pay bump. What you want to do is talk to your boss upfront and get a specific timeframe.

All of that of course presumes a friendly authority figure. There are a lot of us out there and you’ll probably be one someday, but if you have an unfriendly authority figure I’m afraid your original analysis is probably more applicable.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 1:19 AM on March 5 [8 favorites]

And you're right that the opportunity to prioritize a job in order to reap the benefits of increased money and prestige is a privilege for people who are "rich" in some sense of the word.

Not to speak for OP, but the work world tends to be a lot more tolerant of overt "ownership-taking" behaviors from affluent white men than from, well, just about anyone else. Yes, even if they say they want you to "take ownership," the margin before that becomes "being too aggressive" or "not taking direction" or what-the-heck-ever is much smaller for everyone else.

OP, you're not wrong to sense that. On the other hand, if a company is hiring an experienced independent contractor, they are probably looking for someone who thinks of a project as theirs and has a strong sense of how it should be done every step of the way. Enough of that sense that if the company is pushing for something to be done a way you think is wrong, you will (tactfully) push back. Enough that you might even recognize a mismatch between what the project's ultimate aims are and what it's actually setting up to accomplish, and identifying that to the relevant person. This doesn't, however, mean taking it all on yourself to do. It means figuring out what resources you need and advocating for them effectively.

I'm a lawyer, so I don't do anything like full-scale project management. But we recently filed a brief, which can be a reasonably complicated project, logistically. I could've waited for my bosses to dictate every step to me. But, for various reasons, I've done the actual shepherding through filing of large briefs in litigations way more than they have, and that would probably have been disastrous. In the event, we never even had a full-dress conversation about everything that needed to be done. I knew what all the tasks were that had to be completed in what order to get this done on time. I had my own idea of what the timeline would be, that I had to communicate to various people and then push them to stick to (even though I couldn't actually make my boss get me edits by x date). I had to reach out to the person managing the paralegals to get that paralegal time, I had to reach out separately to my colleagues to get some help on some other tasks that I prioritize higher than my boss does, I had to make sure the paralegal had talked to our print shop and set up that print job, etc. I ended up going multiple rounds with my boss on some wording changes she wanted which I disagreed with (won some, lost some). Because, while I am of humble rank in my office, my name was the lead on the brief, and I wanted it to be the best possible version of itself, and, although I didn't have ultimate authority over certain aspects of the process, I wasn't going to rely on anyone else to figure out the best way to get it there. If your name were to be splashed all over the results of whatever it is you do, what would those results have to look like for you to feel happy, satisfied, and proud, and what would you do to make sure you got the right results?
posted by praemunire at 1:35 AM on March 5 [14 favorites]

I manage our office coordinators. In the corporate world that's a pretty low stakes low glory low pay role. But "taking ownership" for their office and their job was my biggest and first ask for each of them.

I explained it as follows:
- I am not a micromanager and I don't want to be
- you have a lot of discretion over how to run your office and use your budget, check in with me when you need to but ultimately you're the one executing the day to day office environment so you need to determine what works best for you/your office
- be able to confidently defend your choices or your coworkers will always try to bend the rules
- if something goes wrong, come to me and be ready to plan how to fix it

That's basically it. (Of course as a manager I back this up through active support when a conflict arises, etc, but I can't do their jobs for them and I can't be supportive in a vacuum.)

Neither of the women on my team come from some prestigious background, but they are both really good at "taking ownership" of their jobs. And one of them certainly does not have a natural confident ease, but she has been doing well at acting it in her work duties, because confidently taking ownership of what she does at work is a defined aspect of her role.
posted by phunniemee at 1:46 AM on March 5 [7 favorites]

Yeah. I feel this a lot, OP. I have posted elsewhere about my hostile work environment and in particular my hostile new (well, not so new anymore) boss who also used the words "taking ownership" when criticising me - e.g. "You don't drive things forward, you don't take ownership of things, you need to do that shit more."

This is what I have interpreted "taking ownership" to mean and what, in implementing, I have found that Boss seems to respond positively to.

- When managing a project with multiple stakeholders I assume that nobody else knows what they are doing nor will they do what they need to do without getting really, really explicit instructions and regular check-ins from me. The advantage of this is that I usually know exactly where every single other stakeholder is at with regards to what they're working on for the project. So I'm a bit of a font of all knowledge where the project is concerned.
- When senior members of staff are in theory responsible for the project, I assume that I need to do all the legwork. I mostly end up doing the work with them just putting their names at the bottom of the document. Again, I'm sort of like a PA to them with regards to this work - I know what needs to be done by when, I get all the info together and put it in front of them.
- I always assume that no one else cares or knows as much about the work as me.
- I think about what's needed next and I take steps to ensure those needs are met before they become urgent.

I started this way of working with a sense of resentment... like, ok so basically what you mean by "taking ownership"/"taking initiative"/"driving work forward" is basically... doing all the work while no one else does anything? However I have learned to see the positive. Being the person who knows the status of ever element of a complex project is a position of power. It makes you more confident to assertively ask for things because you know what is needed where and you're ... the owner.
posted by unicorn chaser at 3:04 AM on March 5 [15 favorites]

Another way to think about it: Are you high maintenance or low maintenance from your boss's perspective? Would he say that when he gives a task to MaskedWonder it gets done, no worries?

When you have a question, ask yourself if the answer requires mgmt input. If not, answer it yourself. When you do go to you boss, take the problems in bigger pieces: should we do it this way with these resources or that way with those resources?
posted by SemiSalt at 4:50 AM on March 5 [2 favorites]

I'm sorry you're getting such vague and potentially problematic feedback. The people who are telling you this aren't doing their job very well.

There's a good chance that this feedback is sexist and/or racist. It unfortunately all too common for this sort of feedback to be given to an URM when it wouldn't be to white man. The vagueness here — "take more ownership" raises red flags for me. If I gave this kind of feedback — especially to someone from an underrepresented background — it'd need to be a hell of a lot more specific.

That said, you asked for some resources, so here's a couple. When I've wanted my directs to "take more ownership", that's usually boiled down to one of two things:

1. Taking more initiative by telling me what they plan to do, rather than asking for permission or guidance. E.g., instead of "the widget is broken, should I fix it?", saying "the widget is broken, I intend to fix it tomorrow." This is terrifically more effective and efficient. A good book on this concept is Turn the Ship Around! — it's oriented towards managers, so it's not a perfect match for your situation, but I think it'd help if this is indeed the thing your boss is getting at.

2. "Owning their inputs" — making sure that they chase down any dependancies for their work, rather than waiting or blaming someone else or making it my job. That is, if Bob's supposed to produce a report, but it depends on data from Stacy, I expect Bob to also be responsible for getting that data. If the deadline comes and goes and there isn't a report, I'm going to be pretty peeved with Bob if he says "well, Nancy didn't get me the data." For more on this concept, I'd recommend the Owning the Inputs episode of Manager Tools (part 2 here). Once again it's more oriented, sorry, but it covers the idea better than anything else I know.
posted by jacobian at 5:58 AM on March 5 [10 favorites]

I got this a lot in the first couple years of my career. I think it got *much* better when I started applying project management tools from the one PM class I took in college, and also looking at online resources. (Ex: I use Asana for task/project management because we were using Outlook tasks before and it didn't work for how I think, so I found a tool that works better).

Taking ownership is a hard thing to define. I think to an extent it means having confidence in your knowledge and abilities and not relying on someone else to lay everything out for you. So after a few years in my industry, I had learned enough to not be asking the SAME questions, and instead being able to take those tasks and ask new, higher level questions. But it also means being able to take on the next level challenge and be able to move it forward independently - I think that "working independently" is actually a huge misnomer, because it does NOT mean working alone. It means your boss can give you an assignment and you can roll with it and get it going. It means asking for clarification when you need it, and it means knowing what parts of the project you can handle by yourself, which ones you need a technical specialist for, which parts you need grunt work level help with, so you're getting the project done well, on time, and on budget without working 24 hours a day. These all sound like very vague things, and to an extent they are -- and without being at your job, it's hard to know if there's anything specific or if it is the more overarching general things.

I think my best advice would be to ask for a sit-down with your boss/manager and tell them you're concerned your work style is not 100% meshing with theirs. Ask if they have any specific areas they would like to change the functioning or setup of. I think this would be a good place to start - it's a way to get more concrete feedback to work on without throwing yourself under the bus. Don't apologize. Just direct the conversation toward improving the process/efficiency.
posted by DoubleLune at 6:05 AM on March 5 [3 favorites]

I started this way of working with a sense of resentment... like, ok so basically what you mean by "taking ownership"/"taking initiative"/"driving work forward" is basically... doing all the work while no one else does anything?

I‘ll 2nd everything that unicorn chaser said and add another way of looking at this. I am one of those people who wants others to take ownership and people I report to expect me to do the same. Whilst I may be ‚responsible‘ for a project I cannot do all the work. The smallest projects I am responsible for take about 2k hrs, I‘ve been 2nd in command for projects of about 25k hrs. At the time I was in back to back client and internal meetings outside my core team all through regular working hrs and that was a large part of my job. The boss and I represented about 3k of those hrs. She was in the same meetings. We were both working long hrs as we all had work outside that project as well. It was the job of the people that represented the other 22k hrs to do the work even though the partner and I would be in trouble if it all goes horribly wrong.

Guess what, I need every single person to take ownership, to move things along independently as much as possible. I am happy to help but I am not the right person to talk to about your tool problems or about how to do something in Excel or where to find basic technical information. Even if I ask somebody to do something there will be a lot of other people in the team who can help with these problems and it is good practice to start with peers or google and move up the chain as things require it.

That doesn’t mean I don’t do my job though. My job is literally to make sure everything gets done, ideally by the most appropriate person, to make sure it gets done on time and ideally within budget. But my job is not to execute the work myself in most circumstances. I’ll be in the client meeting and translate that into what we need to do at a level significantly above step by step work instructions.

I’ll then discuss this plan with somebody I need to take ownership. They then need to go off and find information/request information/involve me if they encounter obstacles that I need to help them overcome (like adding seniority to requests or timelines or call people) and to circle back on what we had agreed and we can define their next few to dos. This person will have other people supporting them and various people they need to chase for things. But my job is to define the plan, help it get executed and make sure it comes together in the end, not to do it myself. .
posted by koahiatamadl at 6:06 AM on March 5 [2 favorites]

White cis guy, was a consultant/freelancer for a long while at a company, then got hired full-time. Had this exact issue, led to my dismissal.

There's a perception about "consultants" or freelancers or contract workers that is vividly split into 2 very different camps, depending on the perceiver. One perceiver (boss) hires consultants to "make problems go away" and the boss next to them hires consultants as "a grunt to carry out tasks as prescribed exactly."

Neither of these perceptions is inherently wrong. They are the REAL owners of the work, and can hire for whatever type of role they think they need.

Problems of the "take ownership" kind arise when the consultant is expected different things by different boss-players. My initial role as freelancer was to be a magic problems solver: take the project and fix it, make things work. Ask a few questions but basically: make these problems over here go away. I did that for a good long time. My bosses respected my work history and my personality and trusted the "machine" to run well with me pulling the levers.

Months passed, a year passed. Leadership changed, my boss' role was taken over by a completely different person who had been there the whole time, but was left to his own fiefdom and basically did it all himself in a camp of different, separate projects.

This guy took over everything. And now his old way of "overseeing everything, doing everything" became more and more impossible. To put it bluntly: he was a control freak... very capable at what he did, but not able to let others have control and final say on things. So my position went from being a freelance problem solver to being a guy who was supposed to carry out specific orders from (basically) one person, and all my actions had to be routed through his approval.

Upper management above him rightly saw this as an impossibility. He cannot make every call, he went from a smaller, autonomous department to being in charge of everything. He could not stand to let me make calls on my own, so I was frequently admonished by him in a passive aggressive way. But his superiors wanted him to give me more free-rein.

Add in a bunch of fuck-ups none of us had control over. And we ended up with a situation where this guy (and his bosses) was telling me I "had to take more control" while at the same time demanding I ge his approval on everything. Basically, he was forced into a situation where he could not allow himself to give up control, but he was being forced to give up control.

This ended after a year of him saying mostly nothing to me directly, but then I was hit with 2 different reviews where I was told by his higher ups that I needed to "Take More Control" and in his review I was met by a detailed laundry-list of minor issues and problems and trespasses I had made,— down to specific things I said in meetings! Like a dozen, specific examples. Never heard a word of any of this until review time. Nothing. Most scarily passive-aggressive-turned outwardly HOSTILE meeting I've ever benn in. Left in a daze. Spoke one on one the next day, told him he should have said SOMETHING about SOME of this at the time, not let it fester for a year then explode on me. It didn't go well.

I was let go shortly after. They hired a replacement for me, someone even more junior. This guy ended up leaving a couple months later and the entire Chicago branch of this office closed several months after that.

tl, dr: it's a disfunction in the company. Some people hire consultants as magicians to swoop in and kill problems, others hire them as manual labor, an additional arm, if you will that can be micromanaged. Neither is inherently wrong, or bad. Problems arise when people higher up don't see this dichotomy of viewpoints. The consultant is caught between the two viewpoints and suddenly "becomes the problem"

I'm a white male, I can only imagine this is worse for you. I'm sorry.
posted by SoberHighland at 6:30 AM on March 5 [4 favorites]

This is going to be really context-dependent. (And, I agree with all of the comments noting that the margin of error is much smaller for anyone who isn't a privileged white guy.)

But in my work, "taking ownership" means that you do more than follow instructions like a robot, but instead problem solve and proactively communicate. To pick an imperfect analogy: if I asked someone to wash the dishes, and they came back and said "I washed all the dishes I could but there wasn't enough soap, so I am done and you will need to problem-solve the rest of the dishes," I would not think that they are taking ownership of the problem (ie, finding where the soap is stored, using the dishwasher instead, or whatever).

It's something my coworkers and I talk about a lot -- there are people in the office who are great to work with on a project because they own whatever they get handed and work hard to solve problems, and there are others who will do what you ask but throw up their hands in the air as soon as there is an unexpected twist.

So when I'm working with someone who takes ownership, I would expect to see clear communication (not just "there is a problem, what should I do?" but rather "I noticed a problem, I checked how we dealt with it last time, and now I have a question about how to proceed"), planning, coordination with others, and taking the initiative to research things and learn what they don't already know. The last is a big deal -- it is huge if someone takes the time to find and apply the legally-required checklist, say, rather than assume that someone else is handling that at a later stage.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:35 AM on March 5 [13 favorites]

I got this feedback a lot early in my career. When I got assignments, I thought I was being careful/conscientious by turning to my boss with all my questions, waiting to get his sign off before making decisions or moving the project forward, and directing other people’s feedback or questions to him. For him, that meant that even though he had delegated the project to me, he was still so looped into it that it didn’t reduce his workload or involvement at all, which is sort of a worst of both worlds situation from his standpoint. Instead of handing off the work to me, the task was still on his plate and I was hovering there messing around with it.

Realize that you have the responsibility you do because you’ve proven your capability and good judgment. If you are feeling anxious or uncertain about a decision, realize you have all the tools you need to make the choice or get whatever information you need to figure it out. Keep track of all the moving pieces of a project so no one needs to remind you about to-dos and you don’t miss any aspects. (Creating a task list that you check routinely is good for that.)
posted by sallybrown at 6:39 AM on March 5 [12 favorites]

I am a white man who owns a small firm and my team are two women of color and one white woman who is herself an immigrant (smart as hell, Polish accent). I believe that you are quite correct to assume this treatment is gendered and race-based in some ways.

This is our experience: new clients have the amazing ability to email me all the time even though Jane (not her real name) is the project manager and I am literally worthless at details. All the time. And I contrast this with my experience as a legislative staffer to a woman - lobbyists would always try to work things out with me and not my boss, the woman Chief of Staff with a decade of experience.

For us, breaking this habit has been about show more than substance. Do you talk loud? Have you tried interrupting more? I think that being very in-your-face about updates, tracking and resources can help as well. One thing we did was have Jane start making simple little Google Sheets "dashboards" for projects to serve as the official tracking station for projects and then our whole team is disciplined about always moving the conversation to "Jane's doc" which is something she literally made and has her name on it.

If this sounds like training dumb men to recognize your humanity than I think you're right. But it might be possible to make some practical improvements.
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 6:52 AM on March 5 [9 favorites]

I see you want recommendations so I have some good ones. The Work-Life podcast by Adam Grant is FANTASTIC for this. Season 2 or 3 is about to start soon I think. Please listen to it. He has some articles linked on his website too. https://www.adamgrant.net/

Now my perspective/experience. It can mean many things, I agree with others. It certainly can be a cover for unreasonable expectations in a toxic environment, but it can also be a very empowering statement.

An example of a piece of work I have starting this week that runs the rest of the year is ghostwriting some columns. I contact the scientist, I get a topic, I write it, I get approvals, I have it laid out, I submit it to the publisher. Now this job could be done by many people it was in the past! But I wanted to run it myself so I'm "taking ownership". If there's a snag, like I can't get ahold of one of the scientists, I will go up the chain and get it taken care of. If there's a last minute edit, I'll get the column changed and resubmitted, etc.

I don't stop until the column is done and accepted. It's all on me. I own it. That is very empowering. I wanted that. I alone am making sure it GETS DONE every time. My designer and editors are great so they get credit too for their help, but I'm "the boss" on this. A failure would belong to me.

When I had nothing I had ownership of, it was a very disempowering feeling. I felt worthless. I was mostly worthless here, actually. But this is only in the context that they have started to respect and trust me and that in turn makes me trust my own judgement.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 6:54 AM on March 5 [2 favorites]

As a woman raised in an Asian culture (so, like, double dose of "respect for authority" in the sense of never questioning authority and doing as I am told), I've got a very sensitive radar for this issue. Basically, every time I feel uncomfortable, like I'm acting "too important" and "who the fuck am I to say/ask/do this?" I know I am doing something right!

"Taking ownership" means you:

- express personal opinions on content, process, scheduling, team management, team roles and responsibilities, etc.

- persuade others to do things your way and on your timeline

- make specific and frequent* requests from other people to help with your projects, and get them to make specific commitments (they will meet with you for 30 minutes every week or they will send you this supplementary document by this date or they will arrange for you a confirmed meeting with [important person] at the conference next week, etc.)
-------- then hold them to the specific commitments they have made: send immediate emails confirming their commitment, send follow up reminders, escalate to management if they are not following through

- send high-level project plan and then regular updates and status reports to management/stakeholders (daily emails, even, and weekly in-person check-ins for 10 mins each)

- send out team-wide celebratory/congratulatory/kudos emails as often as possible highlighting the work of great team members. Include these kudos in weekly summaries. At the end of the project, literally actually celebrate by bringing in donuts and inviting management for a successful wrap "party".

Just some ideas! These things communicate "taking ownership".

* Contrary to what you may believe, asking for help from others frequently/regularly is a good thing. Not only will your project be done better, it also communicates the idea that you value others' expertise and what they bring to the table.
posted by MiraK at 7:04 AM on March 5 [8 favorites]

One specific bit of advice if you're getting dinged for 'asking too many questions'. If part of what's going on is that you're going to supervisors with questions of the form 'Do you want me to do X, or instead should I do Y?', and you can't avoid asking those questions because you really do need to know what they want, try rephrasing as: "Keeping you apprised of what's going on, I'm going to be doing X going forward. Y would also have been an option, but for reasons A, B, C, X will work better."

That way, any response is the authorization you need. If they ignore you, you told them you were doing X, it's their fault if it happens and it's not what they wanted. If they authorize X, also good. And if you guessed wrong about what they want, they'll tell you to do Y, or Z that you didn't think of. You're covered, they're in the loop, but you haven't asked for any information or required them to take any action, you've just reported to them.

Anyone who was being pissy about you framing exactly the same information exchange as a question is counterproductive, but you work with the supervisors you have. (And I would agree that this is probably nonsense being imposed on you for gender/ethnicity reasons.)
posted by LizardBreath at 7:25 AM on March 5 [16 favorites]

White female here, with history of being praised for taking ownership/initiative. Including in a new role that is almost all development/project management, with someone new to management, who is thus far satisfied with what I am doing. Here is how I "take ownership" and have managed to do so without ever being scolded for being too demanding, too aggressive, etc. (I did once get reprimanded for being too efficient but that's a separate issue.)

I think ahead to the next steps of the project as stated by superiors. I think of potential barriers to achievement, make connections with other stakeholders, ask questions at the peer level except for issues involving chain of command, or interfacing with other departments that don't have a smooth relationship with my own.

I think of how to do more than just what is being asked. How can I modify the project to add (1) something I'd more enjoy doing, and (2) something that will make my boss look good. I strive to add one thing that accomplishes both. See the company's strategic plan for ideas for #2 that will also satisfy #1.

I bring pre-planned ideas for cursory approval. Not for everything, but if I'm deviating from the baseline expectation I say here's what I want to do, here's how I was thinking of doing it, what do you think? Usually I get "this sounds awesome, go for it."

The idea is to think through as much of it as you can so it is easy for your boss to approve it. I guess you could look at this as doing more of their work, but if you do more of their work and they like it then they will go to bat for you a bit more easily, and will fight harder to help clear away obstacles with other departments. And again, part of my whole reason for working like this is to add little elements of stuff I enjoy to my official job. Special projects or special application of skills or tools, to make it more fun to do the job I'm paid to do. So, it's in my own interest to get to "yes" and be seen as someone that can work well with limited supervision because that leads to perks that improve my quality of life at work. Maybe seeing it from this angle would help.

(I am sure there are POC factors to your experience that I can't speak to, which are perfectly valid concerns. I will say that when I have had supervisors that don't look like me, there was a bit more friction from them as far as me having this kind of freedom. But hopefully my general mindset and approach can give you some food for thought.)
posted by crunchy potato at 8:26 AM on March 5 [4 favorites]

Just chiming in here to say this thread is INCREDIBLE and you guys are really opening my eyes here. If I could mark every answer "best" I could. Thank you, and please keep it coming (especially if anyone has resources/a perspective on project management tools/techniques in particular, which this thread is making me realize I'm woefully inept at).
posted by themaskedwonder at 8:42 AM on March 5 [5 favorites]

Much of what I want to say has been covered, so I'll chime in mostly to reiterate.

I'm a manager and there's one person on my team who I would like to see take more ownership of her area. What I mean by that is that I want her to feel like it's her domain and not rely on me to make most decisions for her, as others have said. But I also want her to know it backwards and forwards and inside out, know the context of her projects in relation to others', and be prepared to talk about it at the drop of a hat, including to my boss if need be. She's not a tactical agent carrying out my strategy; she's a manager of a particular part of our work and should be the expert on it. The specific sticking points have been that while she does exactly what is asked of her and does a good job at it, she doesn't seem to think about it - why are we doing it, why are we doing it this way, how does it relate to this other thing. If the project is not on a meeting agenda but comes up, she's not prepared to answer questions about it - like she's forgotten everything about it, or has never thought so deeply about it that it's ingrained in her mind. She's going through a to-do list but doesn't think of it as her domain.

It's been hard to have these conversations with her, because when I think of the feedback to give her, giving specifics feels like I'm nitpicking on everything she does but "take ownership" is really too broad and unhelpful. Per your update, one of the most helpful things that we've worked out is that I've asked pointedly about "what is your system for keeping track of this?" I don't want to see the system, I don't want to weigh in on the system, I don't care what the system is as long as there is one that allows her to be able to communicate ownership and spot trends/learn from past projects, which I think is one of the best ways towards developing an innate ownership of a domain.

Her system so far mostly seems to be spreadsheets, I use calendar reminders and a to-do list and a tickler file. I used to use Trello and have been considering exploring that again since my favorite to-do app is going away. One of my goals is to document everything and not assume that I will remember it, and set up methods to nudge myself for following up or doing the thing that needs to be done before the other thing to meet the deadline. Not trying to remember those administrative details gives me the ability to focus on the "why" of the thing, which gives me ownership.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 10:48 AM on March 5 [5 favorites]

White, older female Project Manager here. If you are truly “woefully inept” at this, you likely wouldn’t have the job you do. Try to recognize what you *are* good at, and keep doing that.
Then, get some training. There are definitely tools and techniques that can help you organize better, and recognize when things are going sideways. The following are pretty basic, but also very helpful:
1. Statement of scope - sometimes called a charter, agreed to by all your major stakeholders. This should be a high-level doc that clearly (and succinctly) states the problem to be solved (and answers “Why are we doing this.”), and the approach used to solve. Importantly, it should explicitly state what is in AND out of scope. This helps prevent at least some “scope creep”, because when somebody says “Hey, it would be great if we did such and such”, you can point to doc and say “Nope, that is clearly out of scope. Maybe in another iteration”
2. Some kind of grouped task list, with dependencies. For complex projects, MS Project is good, but is not simple to use. This will provide you with a timeline, so you can see where things are starting to slip. Note: every project will have tasks that slip, and scope will change - your job is to know when this is happening, and take steps to get back in track.
3. A risk log. Risks are things that you KNOW can/will go wrong, so part of the log is stating your mitigation. Certain (but few) risks can only be accepted, but in general, the better you plan, the less hair-pulling occurs when things do go sideways.
4. An issues log. An issue is a risk you didn’t identify, thus have no plans for. The log should include when it was opened, who is assigned to fix it, general steps to fix, and the date when closed. A huge list of open issues is often a red flag. Both Risk and Issue logs benefit from some way of prioritizing/categorizing - generally by severity/probability.
5. A list of stakeholders and their role. This can be really helpful when you need to escalate something - knowing who to go to is vital.
6. A regularly cadenced status report to your stakeholders, with high-level (milestones) achievements, and similar high-level “what’s next”. Should also state any management asks you might have.
I could go on, but hopefully this shows a framework for thinking and planning a project.
You can do this.
posted by dbmcd at 11:36 AM on March 5 [4 favorites]

I think the phrasing above about assuming no one else will care as much as you care is a lot of it. I'm trying to coach a new colleague recently who is having problems with ownership, and the shape it takes is that he is always responding to questions about what we could have done differently with reasons why someone else should have done it. And the answer I want from him is how he is going to check up on those people, or review their work, or bring in help to review their work, not that they should have done it right the first time.

Yes, in a perfect world everyone else would deliver on exactly what you asked for on exactly the timeline they said they would, having considered all relevant contingencies and given you all the information you might need. In the world we ACTUALLY live in, your highest priority is not necessarily anyone else's highest priority and sometimes you have to go look over someone's shoulder until they deliver on what they had promised you last week, or figure out who is regularly slow at meeting their obligations and set up check-in meetings with them, or add 50% buffer on to all the times that certain people estimate because you know they're always blindsided by the fact that new software always has bugs. Sometimes you have to talk to a bunch of different people one-on-one so that you have leverage to ask specific detailed questions. Sometimes you have to say, the plan we have now is no longer possible, here's why, we need a new plan. But the trick is that if you see a problem, it should feel like it's your problem, not something for you to ignore while waiting for an authority to do something. You may not have the authority to deal with it directly, but management relies on employees to bring problems to their attention and to communicate how severe they are as well as any options you see for dealing with it.
posted by Lady Li at 1:23 PM on March 5 [6 favorites]

I think jacobian nails it above, it's two totally different things, and most people are talking about one of them. The other is what Dip Flash also mentioned: overcoming obstacles and taking responsibility for the product, not the task. If people don't push things to you, you pull it from them and flag it early and get it resolved if they're not cooperating.

I've got a page in my references section of my to-do notebook I like to look at sometimes, both to audit myself and others. Sometimes I go to meetings of my reports and I don't even listen to the specific things they say, I listen to how they talk, what language they use.

This is probably stolen from some management book somewhere and someone will recognize it, but I don't know where. It's called the "ladder of accountability"

Make it happen
Find solutions
Embrace it
Acknowledge reality
Wait and hope
I can't
Personal excuses
Blame others

Where's the tone of your normal work conversations? Obviously it varies from thing to thing, but hovering near the top of that list is more "ownership" behavior than near the bottom. If you find yourself not at the top, see if you can rephrase the same thing in one of the higher templates.

Not "Linda didn't give me the thing so I wasn't able to..." but "I will do X, Y, Z, I expect that to be done by ___ to support the goal and I will let you know if I'm running into any roadblocks I need help with"
posted by ctmf at 2:54 PM on March 5 [1 favorite]

White guy in tech talking here, so all standard white dude in tech caveats apply, but this is what works for me:

What I tend to do when I have many issues that need resolution are to list them out. Then I go through and pick the low hanging fruit that I can to and the consider them to be "solved, pending approval." After that I go talk to coworkers.

In my experience a lot of problem solving is just pattern matching, if you remember that Bob had a similar problem last year, see what he did about it. You remember hearing about a similar thing being done at a different company, see what you can find out about it. Use whatever organizational connections you have to your advantage. If someone in your org is known for being a whiz at a particular discipline, ask what they think. Borrow ideas if it can be done ethically; that is ask permission of the originator, and give credit when you do. If I have solved a technical problem at my job, I am usually more than happy to talk to someone about it if they are interested in hearing about it. To me the hallmark of a good organization is one that promotes the exchange of ideas, and if you can be an agent of that exchange then you can not only be effective at your responsibilities, you can help out others to be more effective in the process. You've asked for help here, you can do the same at your job.

I can't speak to the particulars of your situation, but I really doubt that your boss expects you to have all the answers at the ready or to come up with an organic solution all on your own. They probably just don't want you coming to them for everything, so just go elsewhere and when you do have to ask them questions, don't lead with a question. Lead with something substantive like:

"For problem 1, I am going to do this. For problem 2, I am going to do this. For problem 3 I ran it by So-and-So and they said XYZ"

Once you have demonstrated that you are taking action then hit em with a question, and if possible try to frame in such a way that implies that you have given the matter thorough consideration:

"So for problem 4 I think we could do this, but I've not tried it before, do you have any advice?"

Try to use the same structures when asking colleagues for their advice. Giving people the impression that you are proactively looking for solutions is better than just saying "I don't know what to do, help me."

I can tell from the way you asked your question that you are a intelligent, self-aware person. The fact that you are a POC woman in an industry dominated by white folk and you are being asked to "take ownership" of your work to me demonstrates how capable you are of doing this. Good luck.
posted by dudemanlives at 4:56 PM on March 5 [1 favorite]

Just adding my voice to a chorus here, but here are some of the things that I would mean if I asked someone I supervise to take more ownership of a project, although I also agree with those who note that your clients are not your supervisors. For what it's worth, I am female and I deal with social anxiety and impostor syndrome (though I am white and come from a background of socioeconomic privilege).

-Create a plan for the project and present it to me rather than asking me to create a plan.
-Anticipate a few things that might go wrong or concern me about your plan and let me know your contingency plan.
-Keep on top of expected deadlines and milestones, and figure out what to do if it falls behind or if something isn't working.
-If it becomes clear that certain aspects of the project aren't going to happen, figure out what those are and present them to me rather than asking for my approval.
-Go ahead and make small changes rather than asking for my approval.
-Liaise with other teams rather than asking me to do it.
-Become the public face of the project. Field questions about the project from other teams. Take credit for the project. Tell people "I'm leading [project]".
-And yes, being able to push back against your manager or your client when there are problems with their idea or decision is really important. The qualified impostor syndrome-haver way to do this is "if we do [their idea], what should we do if [potential bad consequence of their idea] happens?" or maybe "any concerns about about [problem with their idea]?"

If you feel like you are getting dinged by clients for asking too many questions, but you also feel like the questions are things you don't know the answers to, a few options:
-Ask a peer for advice
-Batch the questions together into one meeting or email rather than asking throughout the day/week
-Phrase the questions as ideas instead. "We have the option to do X or Y, and I recommend X. I'll move forward with that unless you have any concerns."

It is always fine to check in on this at a higher level--more so with a manager, but I think it's okay with a client too. "I get the sense that you want me to take more ownership of what color to paint the widgets. Should I stop running widget paint decisions by you?"

Regarding working extra hours...as a manager, I hold the line really strongly on people not working off-hours, but I know it can be difficult to hold yourself to that standard particularly if your clients have poor work-life balance. That said, I think part of taking ownership does also include saying "a realistic estimate of how long it would take to to X, Y, and Z elements of the project is 60 hours, but I only have 40 hours this week. My recommendation is we just do X and Y, and we work on Z next week."
posted by capricorn at 7:57 PM on March 5 [1 favorite]

A Responsibility Assignment Matrix may be a useful framework for discussion.

You might have access to Lynda.com (aka Linked in Learning) through your local library.
posted by oceano at 5:43 AM on March 6

You might want to consider expanding your support network, by seeking in person/ virtual groups for women in tech or URM in tech (Etc).
posted by oceano at 6:02 AM on March 6

I'm working on the self-esteem stuff - I hate conflict, and I hate being wrong or looking like a failure - and there's a certain degree of confidence needed to "push back" on direction you're given from an authority figure.
I like to talk about "psychological safety" and having ideas "fail fast" -- do you have a mentor or coach with whom you can plan out some small, safe, failures to have mistakes you own, look back at, and make valuable by learning from them?
(How is your imposter syndrome going? I'm not going to assume, so would you have had conversations about a bad cycle where you're scared of being found out for not belonging or being good enough and, in response, you work harder to not get caught?)

If you've worked super hard to make sure something can't fail, you're a great asset to your teams and organisation. I saw the 24-hour thing and wonder if you can share more of the story, particularly because I'm curious when you thought it needed course-correction and if, in hindsight, you think there was a point in time you could have stepped in earlier.
posted by k3ninho at 4:07 PM on March 6

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