Want to be a hero? Make Sure You’re Alone When the Danger Strikes

It’s not just tragedy or danger that diffuses responsibility

Research on “diffusion of responsibility” found that we’re most likely to take heroic action when we’re alone rather than with others. The hypothesis is that we: (a) don’t want to look foolish and (b) are influenced by what the other person is doing — probably nothing. Although the case facts were later refuted, the murder of Kitty Genovese is a great (if somewhat fictional!) example of this. I have an undergraduate degree in psychology and studied this case in college.

However, it’s not just tragedy or danger that diffuses responsibility. It happens in organizations when obligations are unclear (bad) or when multiple people are accountable for the same thing (stupid). Let me be clear: I’m not talking about a senior team having joint accountability for a company’s success. I’m referring to multiple people being accountable for the same activity or specific result.

Here’s an example from my past.

While working for a multi-unit retail organization, I was accountable for the growth of 19 states (e.g., site review, signing leases, budgeting, etc.) and “owned” that P&L. After a major reorganization, the new CEO formed a centralized real estate group and decided that five people must sign off on the final document to approve new sites. No one, of course, was solely responsible and no one, of course, cared as much as I previously had. The result was many poor locations.

I’ve run into numerous situations in companies where — because of either bad judgment, hurried decisions or refusal to make a tough decision — two or more people were designated as “responsible” for the same thing. It rarely works well.

If you and a teammate are racing a two-man scull, you’re both perhaps equally responsible. If you both own the results for a marketing campaign, a manufacturing line or opening new stores — that ain’t right!

Categories: Management & Leadership