The “Someone Else Will Do It” Effect


I hope that everyone had a happy holiday and, for those that celebrate it, a Merry Christmas!  Just before the holidays I posted a blog entry about the “Law of the Few” and the “Stickiness Factor”.  I also mentioned that I in my next article I would be focusing on the “Power of Context”.  As I said previously, I think this topic is so profound that it really needed to be on its own.

When Malcolm Gladwell discusses the “Power of Context” he states that “epidemics are strongly influenced…by the circumstances and conditions and particulars of the environments in which they operate.”  As usual, I immediately begin to think about the implications in the business world.  It strikes me that so many times this point is missed when we set forth to affect change in the workplace.  Things move so quickly in the world today that we often forget that we really need to take the time and ensure that the time and environment are right for initiating a change; this includes launching a new product, a new learning initiative, changing culture, or other major change.  All too often I think we begin moving forward without ensuring that we have the right time and environment, and then cross our fingers and hope that whatever we are trying to accomplish is successful.  How much time and money is wasted with tactics like this?  Taking the extra time and effort initially could increase the chance for success exponentially.

As I think back to my time with a previous organization, I remember conducting interviews and focus groups trying to gain perspective on why things that we were trying to implement weren’t working.  On many occasions, there would be information coming out that would have been crucial for us and others in the organization to know about.  When asked why this information wasn’t brought forward sooner, the most common response was “everyone already knows, and nothing’s changing, so it must not matter,” or “I figured that someone else/my manager/so-and-so said/did something about it.”  Unfortunately I think this is probably a misconception among many employees in many organizations.

The example used in “The Tipping Point” to explain the “Power of Context” is that of Kitty Genovese.  For those that may have forgotten, or never previously heard of it, this is the story of a lady, Kitty Genovese, who was stabbed on two separate occasions inside of a thirty-minute period on her own street, where supposedly 38 people heard and/or saw the incident without anyone calling the police.  The details of this story are highly contested, however I believe that this event was itself the “tipping point” for further study into diffusion of responsibility and the bystander effect.  Essentially this says that people are less likely to help someone in trouble while in a group situation, either because they believe that someone else will better know how to help or they will be embarrassed to help in front of others.  I believe that the same premise happens in our business organizations today.  As I said before, it is my experience that the people on the “front line” of our organizations who are closest to our customers, and those who are closest to the many different issues facing our organizations today, often believe that someone else must have a better solution, or that if it really is a problem or something that should be known it is already known by the right people, or they don’t want to be embarrassed by suggesting something that has already been thought of or for being seen as over-zealous.

Creating an environment that is open and encourages suggestion and communication is important, but based on examples such as this it could be even more important than first thought.  To truly change how we create change in our organizations, we must make it possible to gain real-time, first-hand information and must find some way to encourage that information transfer.

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