By Craig Storti

The concept of ownership gets a lot of attention these days. The notion is broad, embracing such concepts as accepting responsibility, being held accountable, taking initiative, and especially using your own judgement/making independent decisions about matters that have expressly been delegated to you.

This sounds straightforward enough, but taking ownership actually has a cultural dimension. In hands-off, empowering cultures like the U.S. (see sidebar), taking ownership is expected, encouraged, and rewarded. In most other cultures, it can get you into serious trouble.

A client recently reconstructed this conversation with a direct report:

NANCY: I was wondering how that design is coming along?
VIVEK: We finished Phase I of the design in the middle of last week. I believe I sent you an email.
NANCY: I remember. Yes I got that.
VIVEK: Great. But I guess you didn’t have time to reply?
NANCY: It’s been hectic here. But anyway, how’s Phase II coming along?
VIVEK: Phase II?
NANCY: How much is left on that?
VIVEK: Did you want us to start Phase II?
NANCY: Like it says in the implementation schedule. We went over all that together.
VIVEK: Of course.

The problem here is the cultural expectation concerning ownership. Nancy’s culture taught her to be a hands-off, empowering manager, delegating responsibility and then getting out of the way. After she and Vivek went over and agreed to the implementation schedule, Nancy handed this project off, not expecting to hear from Vivek until the design work was completed, unless he had questions.

For his part, Vivek completed Phase I and then had a decision: Do I just start Phase II without notifying Nancy, staying on schedule but acting without permission? Or do I let Nancy know I’m ready to start Phase II and wait for her guidance? This could delay things (as indeed it has), but I would not be exceeding my authority or otherwise stepping on Nancy’s toes.

Vivek obviously does not feel that even though he and Nancy agreed to the implementation schedule, he should act at this important milestone without checking in. He would say he’s respecting Nancy’s prerogatives as a manager, and she would say he’s not taking ownership.

As usual in such situations, each party did the right thing according to their culture’s rules. Which means that neither party was aware they had frustrated the other, and of course neither party intended to upset the other.
In other words, both parties are upset—and neither is to blame—which is how it usually is with cultural differences.