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Fauxnership: The Common (and Avoidable!) Leadership Blunder that Frustrates High Performers

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Most people want to be good leaders, and most people are imperfect. Fauxnership—what it is and how to avoid this delegation blunder—should be part of every Leadership or Management 101 course.

People love to own things—homes, cars, gold medals, Taylor Swift tickets. At work, people like to be in charge—to own responsibilities and be leaders in their professional lives. . In the workplace, these two aspects of human nature can often collide in a way that gives rise to something we would all rather avoid: fauxnership. Fauxnership is what you experience when you’re asked to own something—to lead the company forward and be in charge of a project—only to find out later you’re not actually in the driver’s seat (or at least not the only one sitting in it).

At the office, being the bearer of good news often comes in the form of handing someone exciting new responsibilities –something that makes them stand a little taller, work a little harder, and feel like they’re taking a step towards the next rung of the career ladder. It’s fun to be the boss who gives out promotions and raises. If you don’t have dollars or titles to hand out just yet, the next best thing you can hand to hungry is leadership responsibility (because they are smart enough to know what will follow if they succeed). Bosses jump at the chance to say, “Great news! You’ve shown a creative eye with our recent marketing project, so we’re going to put you in charge of the overhaul of our website. Pull together a team to help find a good agency. You got this. This is going to really set you up for a lot of great facetime with leadership. I look forward to seeing what you come up with.” But many bosses are equally terrified of fully relinquishing control and trusting the one they put in charge, so the ownership they give out is not exactly that. It’s fauxnership.

You’ve all experienced it, and it sucks. Most have been on the receiving end, but many of you have also likely handed it out—whether you realized it or not (I’m guilty). Fauxnership is dangerous to the workplace because it elicits the exact opposite outcome of what it intends, and everyone ends up frustrated.

What’s the problem with a little fauxnership?

years ago, I was asked own hiring along with two colleagues for a new position. We were excited, and felt we owned the responsibility for reviewing applications, interviewing applicants, and making a decision about who we should hire. Only we didn’t realize until the end of the process that we didn’t actually get to make the decision. Our boss said, “thank you for bringing in excellent candidates, now I’ll think about what’s the right fit and make an offer based on my final decision.” It was completely understandable that our boss wanted to retain this responsibility (who we hire is incredibly important), but the lack of clarity around that made what felt like ownership of an important job quickly shift to a feeling of lack of trust –simply because of miscommunication at the outset.

Let’s dive into the nuances of how fauxnership negatively impacts a business.

It’s frustrating and reduces motivation of HiPos.

If you’re one of these bosses who likes to motivate and challenge your team but is also a bit of a control freak, chances are you’ve fauxnershipped a high-potential team member. I certainly haven’t been immune to this, and thankfully my team members have been willing to call me out on it more than once. Every time you do this, you chip away at your ability to motivate and retain them going forward, especially if it’s not acknowledged. The challenge is that those who cause this problem often don’t realize it. Bosses are excited to reward and motivate their people. But the impact to the employee is compounded by the fact that they thought their great, supportive boss believed in them, only to have the rug pulled out from underneath them. It is the quickest way to stifle creative freedom, energy, and ideas and send your best people headed for the door. It’s a good question to ask in exit interviews of high performers—whether they felt like they really owned the responsibilities they were told they did.

It wastes time and resources.

All the back-pedaling, re-doing, re-communicating, and adjusting course takes a toll. It’s far more efficient for a leader to set clear expectations from the outset than it is to re-do someone’s work. Letting employees spend tons of time and resources going in a direction you know you ultimately won’t follow is good for no one and certainly not for the business. If you accidentally reduce motivation of good employees by giving them fauxnership, you may end up reducing their effort and productivity across the other projects they’re working on, as they feel less invested in their role of leading the company forward. With my aforementioned example on hiring, what would have happened had our team of three started making reference calls—or worse—reached out to make an offer to someone our leadership didn’t ultimately want to bring on board (thinking this was our responsibility)? Had we not realized the ownership misalignment early enough, this could have had major implications for the business.

Why is it so easy to fall into the fauxnership trap?

Fauxnership happens often because it’s bred from good intentions. Bosses who don’t care about helping their employees grow are more likely avoid the fauxnership trap because they aren’t spending a bunch of time trying to think of prestige projects or responsibilities to bestow on their people. The bosses who are most eager to motivate their teams by giving them cool things to own are the ones likely to find themselves in this sticky wicket. This was exactly my experience—our boss asked us to own hiring because he was so excited to say, “You three are great—form a hiring team and go hire more people like you!” But what he failed to do was connect with the rest of leadership to confirm the exact details of the new hire profile and make sure everyone was aligned on having us make the decision.

No organization or level of employee is immune. Interns may experience some fauxnership, though it probably hurts less because it’s unlikely to be masked as true ownership as wouldn’t expect anyone to be granting important decision rights for the company to an intern. The higher you progress in your job, the higher your expectations become that when you’re given ownership, it’s real. And the more frustrating it is when you find out it’s not. The only person who is immune is the CEO; anyone who has someone above them in the hierarchy can experience fauxnership.

So, what are the traps? How does the intent to motivate turn into fauxnership?

  • Incorrect authority: The person who assigned you ownership wasn’t actually in a position to do so.
  • Unclear assignment: The person who assigned you ownership wasn’t clear about the scope of what you were supposed to own.
  • Pre-determined outcome: The person who assigned you ownership already has an idea (perhaps subconsciously) of the result they want but hasn’t shared that explicitly.
  • Undesired outcome: The person who assigned you ownership doesn’t have a pre-determined outcome , but after you’ve done the work they decide that they don’t like the outcome and take back ownership. Maybe they disagree with the decision you’ve made—and maybe they’re right to disagree because you made a bad decisioneither way, you don’t ‘own’ the outcome.
Incorrect Authority

One issue that can contribute to these situations is a lack of clarity about who has ownership to begin with: whose is it to give away? When any sort of leadership team owns something together and one member of that team delegates ownership, there’s a distinct possibility another member of that team will want to grab their ownership back. Do your pre-work. It’s fun to give your direct reports good news and fun projects, but is it fully your good news and your project to give away? Is there a chance another member of your team gave the same news to one of their direct reports, too? Do you have decision rights to give away, or are you just asking someone to provide input? Talk to each other. Make sure you know who owns what, who’s able to give it away, and that everyone is on board.

Not surprisingly, this is highly likely to occur in small, fast-growing companies where responsibilities are constantly shifting, and new responsibilities are coming into the fold as growth happens.

Unclear Assignment

Clear communication is king. This is often where we get in trouble, because we want to say something grand like, “You own hiring!” or “You’re in charge of our Salesforce migration!” when what we really mean is “You’re going to be in charge of liaising with our Chief Technology Officer, our training team, and our various third-party providers to ensure our migration is running smoothly.” We don’t mean “You get to make decisions about who we partner with or how much money we spend,” but that’s what is heard if you don’t provide specific direction.

Hiring for a certain team might seem like a great thing to ask a strong mid-level employee to own until you remember that at the end of all this, full ownership of hiring would include making job offers and negotiating salaries, and you’d prefer to keep salaries confidential. As I experienced, perhaps what you actually want is for them to bring forward five top candidates and provide their input on who the team should hire.

Micromanaging Outcomes and Progress

The good news about this one is that it’s usually detected fairly quickly. This is what we feel when someone assigns us a project but then seems to be acting as a backseat driver from the moment we put our foot on the gas. It feels like the assignment was clearly given with a specific outcome in mind, even if we’re told that we should be creative, make decisions, and determine the outcome ourselves. It feels like I’m wasting my time or like I’m not trusted to make the right choices. But as a boss, I know very well how this happens—especially at growing companies where roles are constantly changing and people are growing into new positions. Letting go of processes you’ve built or things you’ve owned for a long time can be hard even if you trust those taking over and know they are capable. It can be hard to imagine a future that looks different from the one you helped create. But if there was a good reason to pass this responsibility on to this new person, trust that. 

Undesired Outcome

The larger and more consequential the project or responsibility, the higher the likelihood for this type of fauxnership. Say you assign a team member ownership of re-stocking the office kitchen with new dishware for your 20-person team. Maybe they pick some totally hideous plates and buy cheap silverware so they can fit two coffee makers into the budget even though only four of your staff actually drink coffee. Well, they failed, but you can let them fail. Your team will be just fine with bad plates and silverware. There’s no need to return it all and re-do the work. And when it comes time to evaluate their performance, you can tell them where they missed the mark and why they won’t be assigned to lead the whole office remodel. Better this than giving them—and everyone else—the sense that you don’t stick to your word when assigning ownership of projects.

On the other hand, say you ask this same employee to select an agency and own the overall company rebrand, and then they spend $1M developing a confusing and provocative website that you’re confident will offend and frustrate your customers. You can’t exactly shrug it off and be okay with poor decision-making. It’s critical to make sure you have the right owners in place based on the weight of the responsibility. Getting clear on the scope of the project, any guardrails, metrics, and intended outcomes at the beginning can help avoid this potential pitfall.

Don’t fauxn it in: Advice for Employees

While much of the fauxnership burden rests on bosses and the way they assign ownership, employees being given projects can also play a role to avoid frustration. When given ownership of a project that is outside one’s normal workstreams or job description, employees should double check the details:

  • Budget authority: What is the budget? Do I have budget authority?
  • Input vs. decision rights: What are my decision rights? Do I have decision rights, or am I being asked for input and someone else is owning the final decision?
  • Shared ownership and understanding: Are there are other leaders who currently hold similar ownership or decisions from whom I might be taking over this responsibility? If so, are they on board and aware of this change? Talk to them. Confirm their support if needed.
  • Clarity on goals and outcomes: Is there an intended/desired outcome that I should be aware of? Anything I should know now to avoid backpedaling/redoing work later?

This may seem like unfair effort when on the receiving end of work, but it’s worth it to avoid the headache and heartache that is to come if you invest your time into something that’s pulled back.

Hold the fauxn: Advice to Leadership

Most people want to be good leaders, and most people are imperfect. Fauxnership—what it is and how to avoid it—should be part of every Leadership or Management 101 course.

A simple solution to avoiding fauxnership is asking for what you really want: are you delegating full ownership and decision rights? Are you really giving them input rights: asking for help/support on a project and giving them ownership responsibilities over various pieces along the way? It’s not as glamourous to tell an up-and-comer that you want their support rather than leadership but being explicit about their role in a project and who will ultimately make certain decisions is far better than giving fauxnership and dampening the motivation of that sparkly HiPo. If you want someone to meet with web design vendors, get quotes, make some recommendations, and leave it to you and the management team to make final decisions—that’s still a great project. But that’s the project. Don’t tell them they own the website revamp. Studies on the Endowment Effect[1] show that people put a higher value on something once they own it and feel at risk of losing it, higher than what they’d give to acquire it. I can say from personal experience this is true for responsibilities in the workplace as well. Every piece of ownership you give is going to hurt that much more if you take it away—far more than just not giving it in the first place.

It can be as simple as this: every time you’re excited about handing someone a new project or responsibility, take a pause and ask yourself a few questions:

  • Am I asking for input and support, or am I truly giving away ownership?
  • Am I really prepared to let them take this in a direction I would never go, and maybe even fail?
  • If I’m giving full ownership, is it mine to give? Who else needs to be on board with this decision to set this person up for success?

Finally, share the answers to each of these questions when you delegate the work. This will set your teammates, you, and your company up for a much happier and easier future.

[1] Endowment effect https://kenthendricks.com/endowment-effect/; https://thedecisionlab.com/reference-guide/economics/the-endowment-effect/


Written by Andi Baldwin