The Diffusion of Responsibility

Jim BensonExpertLeave a Comment

Diffusion of ResponsibilityWhen I was an urban planning student at Michigan State University, I was part of a team involved in a large group project. We were writing a downtown redevelopment plan for Albion, a small city in southern Michigan which, like the rest of the state, had fallen onto hard times. We needed to come up with ways for the town to get back on its feet.

There were about 8 of us on this team, and while we were a fairly responsible group of kids, we knew that other classes, outside jobs, and our social lives would present us with competing responsibilities and very different schedules. Fortunately for us, the project had only one deliverable – a paper that was due at the end of the term. Being urban planners, we’d all had a few psychology courses, and we knew all about Kitty Genovese, and so we wanted to avoid something called diffusion of responsibility.

Diffusion of responsibility is a negative outcome in groups where responsibility isn’t clearly assigned nor is leadership taken. In other words, it’s a situation where roles are poorly defined. Its ugliest and most infamous example is the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese. Returning to her Queens apartment late one evening, the 28 year old was brutally attacked in front of her home by a man who shoved a knife into her back – twice. In earshot of her neighbors, her cries for help brought residents from the surrounding apartments to their windows, their shouts scaring off her assailant.


Newspapers reported that upwards of 38 neighbors heard Kitty’s screams or witnessed her attack that Spring night. While some did call the police, no one ran to Kitty’s aid. Instead, they all assumed someone else would go to help her. Sadly, no one actually did.

Minutes after he fled, Kitty’s assailant returned. Following the trail of blood she left leading to her apartment’s foyer, he stabbed the young woman to death.

It was no one’s explicit responsibility to help the victim, therefore no one came to her aid.

This horrific scenario encompasses two forms of diffusion: social loafing and the bystander effect, elements we likewise wanted to avoid in our work group. We didn’t want parts of the project to be dropped or ignored because no one had taken responsibility for them. So we met during school hours as well as afterwards, regularly taking the group’s pulse. Most tasks were assigned to more than one person, and most were due the next time we had class. We did not assign a leader but instead, equally divided responsibility amongst group members so no one could control the group or lazily benefit from the hard work of others.

Diffusion of responsibility takes other forms as well. It is part of herding mentalities like mob mentality or group think. In these situations, people end up taking part in actions that they would never sanction on their own. In the military and in business, it can also lead to people’s blind obedience, simply because they lack the positional power to object to direct orders. (Just consider the Nuremberg Trials and the events leading up to the collapse of Enron.) This is sometimes called superior orders.

In teams, when we use a visual control like a kanban or a screen with well-chosen metrics, we actively thwart diffusion of responsibility. Social loafing is exposed immediately for what it is and usually dealt with not by reprimand, but simply by conscience: when it’s obvious to everyone that you are loafing, you’re compelled to stop. If you don’t, it’s pretty easy to dismiss you.

The presence of visual controls make herding mentality less likely because the context of work and the opportunities for meaningful dialogue are heightened. This increase in dialogue also lessens the likelihood of falling prey to superior orders.

In all these instances, diffusion of responsibility results when people have either incomplete information or lack the ability to act on the information they have. When using Personal Kanban, our goal is to give ourselves and others the maximum amount of information available that can aid in better decision making. We are less likely to loaf, follow the pack, or fall prey to blind obedience when the impacts of our actions are directly presented to us and our colleagues.

Image “An Apparently Homeless Young Woman Sits Crying in a Doorway, Ignored by the World” by Arty Smokes

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Jim BensonThe Diffusion of Responsibility

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