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Observations on Employee Ownership

The Illusion of Good Intentions

Corey Rosen

June 21, 2011

(Corey Rosen)People are eating out more than ever these days—and watching more cooking shows than ever. Most of these shows involve preparations no home chef will ever attempt, but they remain popular and profitable. It reminds me of an earlier similar phenomenon when there were lots of exercise programs on television, spurred in part by Jane Fonda. A lot more people watched them than did the exercises (albeit some were males, like a group in the office next door in our early days, whose interests had little to do with exercise of anything but imagination).

What's up with this? People who have studied it tell us that the brain is getting confused between thinking and doing. One of the most important human skills is the ability to imagine doing something. It allows us to rehearse the act over and over again without any adverse consequences that might flow from actually doing it and turning out to be following the wrong course. The problem is that we are so good at this that it can be hard to distinguish the real thing from the thinking of it. Brain imaging shows the brain lighting up in the same areas as the action, and the body often even has the same physical reaction. Watching people exercise can give you a bit of the same charge as doing it. We end up congratulating ourselves for our good intentions ("I am going to make that one day," or "I am going to start jumping up and down for 20 minutes one day.").

So what does that have to do with employee ownership? The most common parallel I see is managers who have every intention of seeking and listening to employee ideas. They have open doors and even (they think) open minds. Their good intentions are so strong that it is easy to confuse them with actually doing something to generate these ideas. Unfortunately, everyone else is just going about their work. There is no specific structure for them to share ideas and information, so they don't. Managers get frustrated because their brains are telling them they already are doing something to get people involved, even if they really are not.

It also shows up when ideas get discussed and actions agreed to, and then nothing happens. We all feel so good we came up with a great plan, and now have such terrific intentions, that our brains tell us, "good work, job well done." But then the hard and less glamorous work of assigning tasks and doing the work somehow doesn't get done. But we still feel proud of our intentions.

Some years ago, Converse (the old sneaker company) had a great ad. It showed a runner sitting at the edge of his bed contemplating his shoes. "The first step is the hardest," it said. Like cooking and exercise, real benefits don't come by imagining. They come from acting. So if you want people to participate, go set up a team, a committee, or some other kind of structure and a system where ideas get processed. If you want to use good ideas, don't just agree on them, act on them.

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