Diffusion of Responsibility – the modern phenomenon in an L&D context
Have you ever noticed, at work or in your personal life, the phenomenon of the diffusion of responsibility? I have (in both) and recently had what can only be described as a really frustrating conversation with my colleagues in our L&D team. The meeting was a discussion about our in-house graduate programme and specifically the social/fun activities that this programme encourages. Our graduates are really keen to attend these activities but whenever we suggest they take direct responsibility for organising these events, the enthusiasm dissipates and everyone waits for ‘someone else’ to organise them.
Now this scenario may be somewhat banal, but it did make me think, is our organisation unnaturally apathetic or is it symptomatic of a wider issue? I would argue it is part of a wider issue where the diffusion of responsibility is increasingly just accepted in our society. I see it oft repeated from school fundraising, where you commonly see more than half of parents not ‘baking cakes’, to children’s sports clubs where parent volunteers are the life blood and yet getting new/additional support is like squeezing it from a stone. Even at a societal level I frequently hear moaning about our lack of communities through to disillusionment in our politicians. Yet it is always someone else we are looking for to solve these issues.
Where did it stop being our shared responsibility? How is this anything to do with L&D? Why did I even start writing this blog?
I wish I had a neat answer to these questions, but the short answer is I don’t (and that isn’t a case of trying to diffuse my own responsibility). My reason for writing this blog was to see if we could perhaps start sharing ideas on how to reverse this trend. So here are my thoughts (and feel free to completely disagree with me – maybe I am simply being a grumpy old man?)
My first thought is that as L&D people our nature may be working against us, as we are naturally active involvement types who want to help others and support their development, making it easier for them to surrender their own responsibility to us. An example of this could be offering professional development/career surgeries in lieu of line managers having these conversations with their teams. Now on one level this makes total sense to me and it appeals to my L&D thinking; yet another part of me baulks as it is giving line managers permission not to do this – when it is clearly included in their behavioural competencies as people managers in our organisation.
My second thought concerns a discussion that comes around frequently in my own team, regarding how clearly should we ‘signpost’ in our training and activities? People will often talk of ‘dumbing down’ when they want to be treated like adults and challenged more. Yet when our training is stretching and requires interpretation/mental leaps, we often receive feedback that it is too abstract and people miss the key messages. So if we want our training to be more ‘University Challenge’ than ‘GMTV Quiz’ (NY is known as the Big…??) then how do we do this? Do we need to commit to incrementally increasing the challenge for our audiences over time? I would certainly suggest that there needs to be a long term plan developed by L&D teams about how to increase the stretch of learning in the years ahead.
My final thought, at the risk of straying into politics, concerns the idea of human rights versus human responsibilities. In Western society and even in corporate HR functions, there has been real emphasis put on ensuring the human rights of employees are protected via legislation and policies. Don’t misunderstand me, I think this is hugely important, but I don’t think it is the only consideration. It is my belief that we need to begin stressing more the human responsibilities that we have as employees and members of society. In the workplace I believe this includes accepting individual and collective responsibility for our contribution, performance and success to ensure a positive impact. This may well start with volunteering to organise a social event (or cake bake) but who knows where it could end….
Nick Halder is Learning and Development manager for Fidessa. He also likes to get involved! – so is a Governor (Kings College, Guildford) and Cricket Coach (Petersfield Colts).