Attend an employee-ownership conference and you’re bound to run into the ESOP zealots who want you to take part in a game or group activity. Even in this era of required social distancing, you may get roped into an interactive Teams event or a Zoom contest. What’s up with this? These games, fun and interactive activities are prominent in our employee ownership community both inside companies and at our conferences.

There are those that balk at the ‘forced fun’ saying, “our folks don’t need the hype; they just need the facts.” This might be true if employee owners were always poised to internalize what it means to be an owner after hearing the facts. After more than 30 years of training on ESOP and business concepts to people who were not pre-motivated, we know there are practical reasons for using interactive learning, business simulations and challenges.

Everyone needs an excuse to pay attention
All of us who have reached adulthood have an overload of information rattling around in our heads. Just think of the amount of information bombarding your phone. Add to that the competing priorities and juggling that everyone has in their personal and work lives. Without delving too deeply into adult learning theory, suffice it to say that we (any adult) will not learn new stuff or try on a new mindset unless we have a reason to do it. Enter the fun and games.

Ownership thinking is something we need to practice. Friendly competition, business simulations, small rewards, prizes – and the like – help encourage employee owners to focus on the ESOP long enough to catch the enthusiasm.

Ownership models in our heads don’t cut it
An interactive activity helps us suspend what we think already think we know about ownership for just a moment, to make room for a shared understanding of what ownership is, what it isn’t and the behaviors that come with ownership in your company.

Human beings develop short cuts in thinking that come from our prior experience. There are many types of ownership: partnerships, home ownership, sole proprietorships, public company ownership or family business ownership. Most people have an unspoken passion for what they feel ownership is or should be.

Here’s the rub: these shortcuts don’t always translate well for understanding ownership in an ESOP. Technically speaking ESOPs are a retirement trust that owns employer securities. This sterile definition can be too passive because most companies want ownership to be about active employee engagement recognizing that everyone’s job can impact performance. A fun activity can help us set aside our pre-conceived notions.

People learn in different ways
Last week I ran a business education session for an ESOP committee that included salespeople, mechanics, administrative staff and people who work in a warehouse. After the very brief “lecturette” on how job-level performance impacts stock value, the group competed in a competitive challenge where sort through cards as a team. Right on cue when a team member forgot a very basic concept someone joked loudly, “Dude, we just talked about that five minutes ago!” Lectures and written information are among the least effective ways to get new information into our permanent memory.

We need to actually DO something with ideas to make them our own. Enter group interaction, challenges and game-like experiences: they can engage us physically and emotionally. They can get just a little bit of adrenaline going so the concepts are more likely to stick and people enjoy the experience of learning.

ESOP companies need new ways to cover the same information
Experienced ESOP Communication Committees, HR leaders and managers know that the annual statement and the Summary Plan Description (SPD) are inadequate to cover fully communicate what it means to be an ESOP participant. Some ESOPs cover this information in an annual meeting. But as time goes by even your most enthusiastic ESOP advocates can grow weary of the same slide show. Here’s where a challenge, simulation or a game can deliver the messages in a different way.

Strengthening human connections are often a business strategy
Tapping into the motivational impact of having an ESOP requires that people understand what it is, how it works and confident about how their role contributes to the group’s goals. Games and group activities do more than teach ESOP and business content, they provide an opportunity to let down our guard and strengthen interpersonal connections.

Strengthening trust and teamwork can have positively impact on a variety of other business objectives like: increasing the speed of innovation, improving group problem solving and reducing employee turnover. Having fun, even if it is virtual fun, can create the glue that the business needs to tackle its next challenge.

If you’re scratching your head wondering what’s up with all the crazy games and interactive learning at employee ownership companies, consider that ESOPs have a complex set of concepts to communicate that non-ESOP companies do not have. In addition, employee-owned businesses need to inspire action or we won’t tap into the full benefit of shared ownership. The fun and games that our clients are implementing are purposeful business strategies — designed to accelerate business savvy and help people move from “hired hands” into engaged employee owners.

For help with interactive virtual games or interactive experiences for your employee owners, call Cathy Ivancic from Workplace Development at 330-896-7285 ext. 101 or email her at A version of this article first appeared in an Ownership Advantage column in the ESOP Association’s monthly newsletter.