Performance Management Company Blog

Ideas on People and Performance, Team Building, Motivation and Innovation

Nobody ever washes a rental car – Thoughts on engagement and ownership

“Nobody ever washes a rental car.”

I’ve been using this phrase for dozens of years, since it elegantly and simply illustrates a very real opportunity for significant increases in employee engagement, organizational improvement, performance improvement and so many other aspects of improving organizational results.

It’s a really great anchoring statement and I have used it many times as the title of a presentation. But it also generates confusing reactions in some people.

It’s a metaphor! It is not a statement for Generally Accepted Accounting Principles or some Rule of Life. And it is funny — I have actually had people raise their hands in seminars to explain that they have actually washed a rental car in the past. Once in a while, they admit to being WAY overly compulsive and obsessed. More generally, they illustrate my key point…

The point is one of ownership — people do not take care of things they do not own. I can often illustrate this by asking participants if they have ever owned a rental property. Some of the tenants were exceptional and left the place better than before they rented it. But most share my experience: tenants at a house I owned nearly burned down the house with a chimney fire, pretty-much destroyed the wood floors, punched holes in the walls and left nail holes in nearly every wall. The rose garden and the camilla tree were gone, with the former used as for parking and the latter just destroyed (by motor oil dumped around it, apparently).

Ownership — If you own something, you tend to take better care of it. That is all I mean. Let me illustrate.

If someone in the workplace comes up with an idea and presents it to the manager and the managers enables them to try it, they most likely will, right? But, if the boss comes up and says, “Let’s now do things this way,” the general response will be for people to resist the change and generate reasons why it won’t work, right?

Statistics say that most executives believe that the most difficult aspect of any organizational improvement initiative is employee resistance.

Nothing corners better, handles bumps and speedbumps, treats potholes and curbs with disdain, accelerates faster and breaks harder than a rental car. (right?)

Who owns the idea? Not the employee, right? So, why wouldn’t they resist the idea? After all, they need to change, learn to do something differently than they have been doing it, have a higher risk of failure and will probably see a drop in their productivity in the short term. What’s to like about all that?

And there is another paradox at work, as shown below:

Leaders will resist changes they feel are done TO them.

On consulting projects in the past, ideas that I helped the workers implement were often resisted by the managers, who felt that things were not under control or moving too fast or similar. This happened less and less as my experience improved and I could generate a level of their involvement that would balance the issues of resistance on both sides of the wagon.

I’ve expanded on the issue of ownership elsewhere in my blogs such as here on innovation and here on leading meetings.

There are lots of ways we can do things differently to better involve and engage people in our needed improvement initiatives. But pushing and pulling is not the best of strategies. Sitting, talking, explaining and asking is often a much more effective way to get things rolling…

Put the wagon up on wheels for a while and consider alternative ideas generated by everyone.

Have some fun out there, too.

Scott Debrief

Dr. Scott Simmerman is a designer of team building games and organization improvement tools. Managing Partner of Performance Management Company since 1984, he is an experienced presenter and consultant. 
Connect with Scott on Google+ – you can reach Scott at scott@squarewheels.com

Follow Scott’s posts on Pinterest: http://pinterest.com/scottsimmerman/

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5 Comments

  1. Good post. I’m generally a firm believer in involving people to get them engaged and raising the degree of common ownership. I do have to say it’s easier said than done. What are your thoughts about instances in which there’s been an attempt to engage people in conversation and enlist their involvement in problem solving – where a change is needed, but they don’t see the need for the change? Any thoughts/advice for situations in which – due to ego, fear of losing status (or power) or other such reasons, some key stakeholders feel the status quo is the way to go?

    • Brian –

      This is where the issue of Peers comes in — or at least one of those places.

      If the Peers are there supporting the concept that something is a Square Wheel, it adds a great deal of social support to the issue as well as extrinsic motivation to actually DO SOMETHING about it!

      If there is a history of non-support from the manager or their bosses, that usually comes up, also. One more thing to discuss. People are pretty good about ideas and engagement and working around roadblocks when they function as a focused team. This is not formal team building, but it sure is effective team building!!

      In my view, the exemplary performers are ALREADY working around the issues, the average employees are frustrated by the problem, and the poor performers are using all this muck as an excuse to not do anything. Once the team gets focused on fixing stuff, you already have the proof that it works from the top performer(s) and you eliminate the excuses (and the tolerance by the average performers) so that the results of the bottom of the curve get improved.

      Call this a “Duh,” but it works that way. Pretty simple group dynamics, actually. But the key is FACILITATING the process, not driving it. That is a common mistake that many managers make, which simply generates resistance. People do not like to be pushed!

    • I think that the people will always see the need for changing things that do not work. But it has to be their idea to make improvements, rather than something that is pushed on them. People resist being pushed — one of the workshop things I do is ask for a volunteer and then have them stand in front of me with their arm out and I will gently push their hand toward them and they ALWAYS push back, so I push a little harder and so do they. That is just a natural response.

      I think the same thing applies in the workplace. Most are not engaged. Many have learned to (apparently) DO what they are told to do, but they also will resist in simple, passive ways or, what is worse, they will go into a “Compliance Mode” where they will do ONLY what they are told to do. That is an awful situation.

      I believe in the inherent goodness of people and that they will get involved if treated fairly and squarely.

      One can also find a lot of literature on the tendency for some in the executive suite to have attained that high role through behaviors that psychologists often term, sociopathic.Those people simply care only for themselves and not for others and act accordingly. It takes narcissism to a high point!

      But I think us regular people can engage those regular people, work to eliminate some of the negative past histories they may have had in the workplace, and work on something I call Dis-Un-Empowerment. We can build skills and trust and performance improvement.

  2. Thanks for several very complete and well-articulated thoughts. I really like the example you offered of the demonstration activity of pushing on a volunteer and getting the natural response of push-back in return.

    Do you think engagement through involvement is ubiquitous across borders and cultures, or do you think it is more likely to work in certain cultures (either company/organizational cultures or global cultures)?

  3. I’ve presented workshops in 38 countries and have global users of my team building and organizational development tools and think these are VERY common issues and opportunities. I would say that I have not even seen a work culture where these kinds of comments and frameworks are even questioned… There ARE differences, but they are not significant, in my experience.

    Anyone else have similar thoughts or issues?

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