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Diffusion of Responsibility
Be more than a bystander
I’ve seen matrix reporting structures that have been well implemented, but one of the main reasons that many of them fall short of expectations is the psychological effect known as diffusion of responsibility.
There’s a great short video here, if you want an overview:
Imagine: you are alone in the office at the end of the day, and you suddenly notice that smoke is coming from one of the trash cans. It’s a pretty easy decision to grab the fire extinguisher and put out the fire, right?
But, if there are a few other people in the room, what happens? You make eye contact and give them an “I’m concerned; should we be doing something about this?” face, right? You say something like, “Hey, do you smell smoke?” You might still step up and grab that fire extinguisher, but it takes longer. You hesitate as you read the interpersonal dynamics of the situation.
This effect gets stronger with larger groups of people (and the sense of responsibility is diffused into smaller percentages for each person). In business settings, it’s one of the main challenges people face when they’ve implemented a matrix reporting structure and then have a problem with a team member. It’s one of the challenges that many people face when working in collaborative teams with nebulous role definition.
As a leader, it helps to adopt the attitude that: “while it’s not my fault, it’s still my problem.” When an unanticipated crisis or challenge arises, assume that everyone else will be standing around waiting for someone else to step up—or at least hesitating and doing that eye-contact-and-concerned-face thing—so be that someone.
And when dealing with a problem, especially an emergency or a time-crunch, it helps to assign specific actions to specific people. So, rather than saying, “Someone is going to need to pull up the original scope-of-work agreement to check X,” say, “Bob, please start by pulling up the original scope-of-work agreement to check X.”
Another example that might save a life: in a medical emergency, don’t call out, “Someone call 9-1-1!” Instead, make eye contact with one person, and even point and say, “You in the blue shirt—call 9-1-1!”
Stepping up is hard, but it’s one of the things that makes someone a good leader.