Ownership means decisions

The “tragedy of the commons” – the idea that if something is a communal resource, then everyone will abuse it – is not a big deal in today’s society. Instead, there are two other problems: The someone else’s problem syndrome and ownership apathy.

The first is easily seen: Look for litter. Usually, it is easier to find litter in a parking lot than someone’s yard. I still see people throw cigarettes out of windows (or dump entire ashtrays and bags of trash) at stoplights. Why? The area is seen as privately owned (someone will clean it up), but not owned by themselves. In a very real way, this is a special case of the tragedy of the commons, because the individual in question doesn’t feel they’ll be reprimanded, and that they don’t own the area in question.

What about the employees of the company? That’s our second tragedy: The employees of the city or store *also* feel that they don’t “own” the area, and don’t feel the social pressure to keep the area up. Despite wearing a uniform and recieving a paycheck, there is no sense of ownership and responsibility. I believe this is directly tied to a feeling of disposableness. While the employees are claimed to be in an ownership relationship, they do not actively *participate* in ownership of it. They have no decision making authority. They may not even get heard, or have their concerns addressed. Without those things, you can call it ownership all you want, but you’ll never, ever reap the results of it.

This second principle extends into all business (and social) relationships. To really evoke the feelings of ownership, a person must be able to participate with – and even to some extent control – the thing they are supposed to own. Managers, read the next line carefully:

An ownership society is a participatory society.

Trying to evoke one without the other leads to disgruntled people, disheartened advocates, and a situation worse than when it started.

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