Ownership and Entitlement

A friend and former Facebook colleague came to visit me recently during my paternity leave. As the conversation carried on it turned towards who was still at Facebook and who wasn’t, and what we thought controlled how happy someone would be at a company. As we went through dozens of our current and former colleagues a clear pattern emerged that was surprisingly predictive, not so much about their success or tenure at Facebook but of their overall happiness in general even after changing jobs.

I believe the single biggest factor controlling how happy someone is with their work is whether they approach it with a sense of ownership or a sense of entitlement.

Contrary to popular belief, entitlement is fundamentally the mentality of the victim. The entitled mind is convinced it is inescapably subject to malevolent or negligent forces outside of its control and nurtures a grudge against the perceived injustice. Entitlement represents a fixed mindset where people and power structures can’t be changed which provides an excuse to complain without taking any meaningful action. As a consequence, interactions are treated as transactional and zero-sum so solutions are measured in the short term from employment agreements to APIs.

Entitled people believe that a great deal is owed to them. If you were to believe that, then you would spend your time:
* comparing yourself to others and looking for opportunities to make yourself relatively superior
* hiring as few good people to compete with you as possible
* avoiding direct conversations where there is any personal risk
* waiting for others to point out problems and then join the bandwagon when there are enough people that it feels safe
* passing responsibility and ownership to others to solve problems
* avoiding risks and focusing on safe work even if it isn’t the highest impact
* negotiating for personal gain rather than collective gain
* downplaying or hiding mistakes and overhyping successes
* leaving problems you discover for someone else to fix

The dead giveaway of an entitlement mindset is the presence of “the other” in their language. They refer to “the company” or “that team” or “management” or “someone.” When referring to a specific individual it is rarely a truly human account, but rather a symbolic one of what someone represents rather than the actual person.

By contrast, ownership is a growth mindset. Owners believe that they can improve and that the company can improve. Owners don’t externalize their problems but recognize those problems as theirs to deal with (or not) as they choose. Owners have full agency which is incompatible with indignation. They approach problems impersonally and objectively. They work to invest in institutions and people that can pay back dividends as they scale over the long term.

Owners believe nothing is owed to them and that they must make their own results. If you were to believe that, then you would spend your time:
* building people up who you think can help you succeed
* hiring only the best people and spending a lot of time trying to find and recruit them
* being honest with yourself and your teammates about what is working and what isn’t
* taking stances that you believe in even if you are the only one
* fixing problems and not complaining about them. They are, after all, problems that you own.
* taking risks when you think they are the right thing for the company long term
* negotiating to maximize the whole rather than for yourself
* never waiting for someone else to do something because there is nobody else. There is only you.

At the core, showing up as an owner is about truly believing and acting like nothing is someone else’s problem. The language of the owner deals in specific individuals with specific details or in the collective second person “we”. Being an owner means taking responsibility for how you engage with those around you and taking responsibility for dealing with your own issues, not expecting someone (or your company) to deal with them for you.

To be clear, both systems of belief are mostly fiction. We are neither fully in control of our situation (none of us write our own paychecks or performance reviews) nor are we entirely victims to it (we have freedom to move and at will employment). Not only that, no person is always one or the other; we all have areas where we feel victimized (often rightly so!) and areas where we feel ownership. I write this not to cast moral judgement on people but rather to show that one mindset is simply more useful than the other. If I have to choose a fiction – and I believe we all do -- I find it productive to choose the one that makes me happier and a better employee.

An ownership mindset is not without problems. For example, two people feeling ownership over something is better than zero but it can also be a recipe for conflict. In those situations, ownership and entitlement can overlap painfully. It is subtle but I believe entitlement includes the feeling of entitlement that you should get to do everything your own way. Successful owners feel ownership over their company and its outcomes much more than any specific bit of work therein. Successful owners have to make a surprising number of local sacrifices to ensure the best long term results for the whole.

As it happens, I also believe that the more each individual acts as an owner, the better a company scales. People just don’t want to be at a place where it’s all about I/me/mine and people constantly in conflict. We would all rather be at a place where it’s about a community working together. Here are a few of the advantages I have seen in my time at Facebook:
* more cultural norms means fewer formal processes
* innovative ideas can come from anyone rather than relying on hierarchy
* reduces the overall number of bugs/problems as more of them are attacked faster and more locally
* allows a long term view with less conflict
* makes us an attractive place for the best talent

It was an ownership mentality that got Facebook on the right track early on, though I admit that was easier when there was literally nobody else to help you with your problems. The greater challenge has been maintaining it as the company grows and the temptation for each individual within it to see themselves as just a helpless cog in the machine as it grows. This is the gravity that grinds companies towards mediocrity over time. And it is under our control.