Article written by Cathy Ivancic first appeared in the National Center for Employee Ownership newsletter

Deal-or-No-DealIf you’re yearning for people to appreciate the full benefits of being employee owned, consider how you can link your communications to a pop-culture phenomenon. Fun, learning events based on game shows like “Jeopardy,” “Deal or No Deal” and “Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader?” have provided our ESOP clients with rich opportunities to teach people about risk, reward, and the real meaning of “taking ownership.” Our clients often ask us to develop presentations that will engage employees and focus people on thinking and acting like owners. Surprisingly game show themes — though ‘low brow’ and ‘a bit silly’ — have been a great backdrop for the kind of in-depth ownership thinking our clients want to develop.

For example, people “lean in” and listen intently when I compare their ESOP account to the shiny “suitcase full of money” that is the centerpiece of the “Deal or no Deal” game show. Let’s take a closer look at what gets their attention.

For those unfamiliar with “Deal or No Deal,” here’s the gist of it. Host Howie Mandel asks the participant to choose one of twenty-six suitcases that contain a dollar amount from one cent to over a million dollars. Participants do not open their chosen case. Instead they are asked to open the remaining cases one at a time. Periodically the participants are offered “deals” to purchase the value of their “mystery suitcase.” Over and over the contestant is asked whether they would forfeit this potential unknown nest egg for a known (and perhaps less rewarding) deal. The parallels with ESOP ownership are uncanny.

Why do people forfeit?

Sometimes people forfeit out of ignorance; sometimes out of aversion to risk. If they don’t understand that sticking in the game can bring more dollars, they can get out too early. Like the game show, employee owners forfeit when they cannot envision the future positively or just don’t want to take the chance. The choice to stick with an employee-owned company is connected to individual’s perceptions of what they believe the real “ownership deal” is. Envisioning the future requires some understanding how the stock plan works, how you get stock, and how you can get a distribution of its value. The basic rules to the plan are a key part of understanding the “ownership deal.” Done right, communication about ownership has a positive impact on reducing turnover and retaining talent.

Can people get charged up about small amounts now?

Just like employee ownership, the ultimate reward in the game show is not known until it is time for you to get a “distribution.” The contestants on the show get motivated to keep playing the game as long as they believe the opportunity for rewards is real and that their next few actions will affect the reward. Similarly, employee owners get more engaged when they understand they can have an impact on the reward. Contrary to popular myth, real ownership thinking and engagement does not come from dangling a large financial reward in front of employees. Taking ownership is about how people feel about the value of their actions today.

How do people make personal decisions about risk and reward?

Decisions about risk and reward are driven by a gut feeling, and then people look for facts to support their view. In the game show, people bring along family and friends to advise them. Of course, these people have absolutely no additional information or expertise. Curiously, contestants want to poll this group’s gut feeling. The same thing is true in an ESOP or other stock plan. Accurate facts are important, but your vision and values can be real underlying reason people appreciate employee ownership. ESOP communication needs to go beyond the facts and include the gut reasons and opportunities you see for shared ownership.

Is it all just random chance?

“Deal or No Deal” participants get pretty excited about potentially winning a random amount of money. What makes it exciting is when they feel that their actions/choices have an impact. Imagine how exciting it would be for them if they could directly affect the growth of the amount in the mystery suitcase. If employees believe that the ultimate ESOP reward is a matter of random chance, they will do a cost/benefit analysis and take little or no shared responsibility. On the other hand, when employee owners learn how their job-level work affects stock value, you can tap into energy and enthusiasm that engenders true ownership thinking.

Okay, we all know real life is different from the game show experience. For better or worse, Howie Mandel is probably not involved in your company’s stock plan. I suspect that stunningly attractive female models are not holding the value of your stock accounts. Of course, this television show may not reflect anything meaningful about the American psyche or tell us anything about human behavior. It can, however, give busy and distracted people an excuse to pay attention. Linking your message to a pop culture theme creates a launching point to talk about concepts and ideas that are the guts of creating real shared ownership.