Ownership starts with engagement which can be developed with experiential education

September 9, 2010 at 6:52 AM

Ownership starts with engagement which can be developed with experiential education


Cynthia Bainton and Jim Stellar


We have noticed that when it comes to taking responsibility for a task or project, whether at school or at work, people fall into two groups – those that demonstrate ownership, openly embracing the responsibility for that task, and those “Teflon” individuals to whom the task just doesn’t stick.  As parents, managers, and educators one of our main goals is to foster that sense of ownership in the people under our care.  How is this done?  In a word – engagement.


College provides many opportunities for students to engage.  The process begins with the student identifying an interest:  biology, soccer, dramatics, social justice.  Then comes the act of engagement:  declaring a major, playing a sport, joining a club, performing a co-op work experience.  Captain Michael Abrashhoff (you may remember us mentioning the captain and his book, It’s Your Ship, in an earlier blog) increased the loyalty and productivity of his sailors by giving them free reign to find projects of personal interest that would improve efficiency and economy onboard ship.  But how does one get students to engage and develop ownership in a college setting?  One answer is to do like Captain Abrashhoff did and give them real responsibility.  It is hard to take responsibility in most classrooms where the emphasis usually is on information transfer between the one professor who knows and the many students who must absorb that information and be graded on it so the course credit can be fulfilled and the tuition bill justified. 


A very different picture emerges in experiential learning.  For example consider what happens when a student is placed on an internship or a cooperative education experience in a real-world organization.  That organization typically must deliver as a team on which the student is often the youngest and most inexperienced member.  The student has to take ownership of his/her work and transmit that ownership sense to others on behalf of the organization.  In an employment situation it just does not do to be “Teflon” and not have the task stick.


What happens to a student who starts taking ownership in that situation?  Ideally, the student receives immediate feedback on the tasks he/she has owned, either positive or negative. If the feedback is positive, one hopes the student will respond with a sense of pride and a confidence that will lead her/him to another instance of taking ownership. If the feedback is to be negative, it should be delivered constructively so it is still a growth opportunity. Assure students that mistakes are an integral part of the learning process and they will likely continue to take ownership.  Pummeling students with criticism may promote the very “Teflon” behavior we are seeking to avoid in our future employees.


Sticking with this paid internship/co-op example of experiential education, we have also noticed that ownership is better fostered when students are given work they want to perform and feel is important. This works especially well when the students can do that work in a high functioning group.  The group dynamic, perhaps through nonverbal communication, supports this positive attitude and teaches how make the complex emotional logic trade-offs that permit the rapidly size up a situation (what Malcolm Gladwell calls “thin slicing“). Living and working in that world can teach powerful lessons about taking ownership.  We have previously mentioned in this blog Northeastern Professor Joseph Raelin’s book Creating Leaderful Organizations: How to Bring Out Leadership in Everyone.  These organizations are ones with distributed leadership that are very powerful at adapting to change and that provide a healthy environment where many individuals lead, not just the boss in hero-leader mode.  Once at a conference, we heard Raelin give a talk where he speculated at the end that experiential learning in college might be a good way to teach leaderful practice in organizations.  To us this is very close to ownership and underscores the call that many industry leaders are making for higher education to generate a more work-ready graduate, one that not only knows the facts and theories, but can apply them in a group work environment, work in a team, and advance a project through ownership.  If experiential education can contribute to this kind of learning, then it becomes more than just a benefit to the student, it becomes a benefit to society as a whole.  If higher education can produce this effect by marrying academic excellence to experiential learning, it becomes an obligation for those of us in the business to implement and improve student learning experiences outside the classroom.


So, what are the lessons here for higher educational institutions?  We have as students the next generation of leaders, individuals who can either lead us into another sub-prime mortgage type situation or individuals who can exert what Barry Schwarz calls on TED the “practical wisdom” one learns from people.  Predictably (to our regular blog readers), we think the lessons are to push higher education to do more experiential education.  More than that, we need to study how to connect lessons learned informally from internships, co-ops, service-learning, group work in undergraduate research, study abroad programs, etc. not only to content but to leadership in the curriculum. 


How does this experiential-academic connection work?  Do advisors/coaches/co-op coordinators/mentors step in and help students extract the leadership lessons from experience?  Do the students do it themselves through reflection? Can peers play a role through social networking software and blogging?  Is this something faculty should worry about or should they stay with the knowledge areas in which they were trained?  Just asking all of these questions is not enough.  From those who practice experiential learning, we simply need more research on what we are doing and how to do it better.  We need it on the level of institutions and programs and on the level of students and their learning. We need it to generate more students who feel an ownership for their work, their society, and themselves.



From Montessori philosophy for elementary students to mentoring college students: The value of feelings in learning success

4 Responses to “Ownership starts with engagement which can be developed with experiential education”

  1. Grant Robertson says:

    Cynthia and Jim,

    Agree with the sentiments of the article – resilience is so critical.

    Thought I might highlight the notion of contributing-belonging, and the contribution-belonging cycle which I identified in my doctoral research into how followers exercise leadership. You mention that interns get so much more when they feel they’re doing important work – absolutely, I’d suggest most people do. Key element is that their contribution is seen as valued, and this increases their sense of belonging (ownership). Interestingly, there’s a potential for a virtuous cycle here, so the result is greater contribution etc.

    When people aren’t able to contribute in a meaningful way, and I’m sure many interns have that experience too, their sense of belonging diminishes. A vicious (or downward) sprial can then set in and the next impact is that contribution diminishes etc. You point out how critical it is to provide negative feedback in a contructive manner – absolutely! Correct behaviour without invoking the vicious downward spiral that, if it runs unchecked, ulimately results separation.

    This is a simple but incredibly powerful social process that leaders at all levels might reflect on when they are wanting to maximise contribution. I’d be interested in your thoughts.

    You may be interested in a one page briefing UGM Consulting written on this – “Leveraging the Contribution Belonging Cycle” in the newsletter archives section of the uGM Consulting website – http://www.ugmconsulting.com. We’ve also outlined the eight influencing behaviours we found in distribtued team leadership.

  2. Sue says:

    Cynthia and Jim,
    I really enjoyed this post, and love the idea of trying to impart “ownership” of projects to interns or co-ops, and letting the lessons from feedback, positive or negative, enrich that experience.

    Over the years I worked with many wonderful co-op students, and to a person they took their tasks and duties seriously, participated in meetings, offered suggestions, and tried to take ownership. I understand it’s a lot easier for a co-op to take ownership than a bread-winning employee, but still, the experiential education seemed to give the students a taste.

    It would be great if there was a way to foster a deeper ownership and connection to one’s projects and responsibilities, and lessen the tendency to become a “teflon” type who worries only about “covering” themselves if there’s fallout. It’s a challenge, to be sure.

    Look only to the political arena to see “teflon” behavior in full flower. It’s always somebody else’s fault, and not the sitting leader.

    But in business, where a company is ultimately responsible to clients, customers and shareholders, the “buck” does indeed stop somewhere, and maybe the “teflon” reflex only goes so far in a for-profit world.

    Thanks to Cynthia and Jim for coauthoring a thought-provoking piece.


  3. Jessica Valentin says:

    Cynthia and Jim,

    This post is one that brings up excellent points when it comes to a student “owning” their work whether in the classroom, at a co-op placement or in my current situation—place of work. The topic of engagement going hand in hand with ownership is also relevant for employees who work in large companies with management that is not properly balanced, leading to poor training, little room for progression, and ultimately low productivity rates. In my opinion, I can see a major similarity on how focusing on ownership makes for a better student as well as a better employee.

    In our current economy where “job freezes” is a common term and employees are apt to stay at their jobs out of fear that no one out there is hiring, competition is at an all time high. Employees become more aware of being viewed as dispensible as there are many job seekers willing to take any job, even with a pay cut. This is what the assumption is among many employers who in turn hold raises and hire at minimum hourly rates to try and stay above the economic crisis.

    At my job, I have seen the unexpected. People simply want to feel that their work is being recognized and they expect that they be trained properly to be able to move forward and achieve a sense of purpose. Otherwise, I have seen coworkers apply to work “somewhere else” where “they would be appreciated”. In other instances, I have seen productivity go down as employees see no reason to work harder, yet as my co-worker says jokingly, “I need to learn to work smarter, not harder.” Disappointment by management, some inadvertently lose interest in their work and as a result, the quality of the work decreases. Appreciation, incentive and a sense of purpose are important parts of ownership in any given work.

    It has been proven, in my own experience as a former volunteer research assistant in a neuroscience research lab that owning the work one is given gives you a better understanding of the material. It also gives you a sense of purpose and makes you excited to go to work or placement when you are part of a team that wants to see you succeed. Students can listen to and digest lectures for years in college and graduate with much knowledge in their areas, yet a hands on approach where responsibility is given often may be the key one needs to decide if the field is even right for them.

    I enjoyed this post because it relates to my current work situation whereas the initial focus was related to students. It is just proof that starting the ownership trend is important to do at an early level, rather than having it develop later on in a job. This approach allows students to graduate as driven individuals who have learned to connect their classroom lessons in the work field. Application is key to information retention. How can we afford to NOT have experiential education?


  4. Jim Stellar says:

    Grant, Sue, Jessica,
    Thanks for the comments so far. What I think I have learned is a point made in all captured by Sue with her reference to the famous phrase from President Truman, “The buck stops here.” Something has to make the buck stop and a company does that well (or they go out of business, even big ones … eventually). But a university is less likely to go out of business. Maybe it is just this simple. The possibity of failure.
    Experiential education is then a chance to safely put one’s toe in that water while still safe in the university. Then, a very exciting prospect is that the student has the chance to bring that personal ownership learned in the company back to the campus and make the classroom and the whole university better.

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