Why people don’t show initiative

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In March 1964, a woman named Kitty Genovese was stabbed in front of her New York apartment. As it transpired, around 40 people either heard her screams, or watched the brutal event from their apartment window. Police first learned about the attack 35 minutes after it had begun.

The public were outraged not only by yet another murder in the city, but by the facts that it took so long for the police to be notified, and that no one had the courage to try to intervene.

Soon after this, two social scientists set up a series of experiments to find a way of explaining this apparent apathy.

In the first experiment, a room slowly filled with smoke as subjects were completing a written survey.

In the second experiment, subjects heard loud crashing noises from an adjoining room. This was followed by a woman screaming ‘Oh my God, my foot… I… can’t move it. Oh my ankle, I… can’t get this thing off me’.

The third experiment involved a discussion over an intercom when one of them suddenly choked, gasped and called out for help.

Each of the experiments was undertaken a number of times with one variation – the number of people in the room. On one occasion, there was only one person in the room. On other occasions, there were more people in the room.

Here’s the interesting finding – as the number of bystanders increased, the likelihood that any of them would help decreased.

This phenomenon is called ‘diffusion of responsibility’ – and it manifests itself in various ways in the workplace. Typically, this can be observed when things go wrong – do people stand back waiting for someone else, or do people willingly jump in to help fix the problem?

So what can be done about promoting initiative against this backdrop of a ‘diffusion of responsibility’?

This is a pretty complex issue, so it can’t be fixed overnight. Nonetheless, here are some things that can be considered:

  • Are people holding back for fear of failure? If people have been treated badly when things are going wrong, then they’ll be smart and not take the risk of demonstrating initiative when there is the potential for things to go wrong.
  • Are people isolated by their peers for going ‘beyond the call of duty’? Sometimes, there is a UGR (unwritten ground rule) which says ‘Around here, you are only considered part of the team if you keep your head down and don’t bring attention to yourself’. This can be a very strong force in teams.
  • Are people already burdened by a heavy workload, so any initiative is simply added to the workload? Sometimes people won’t volunteer an idea because they know that the response will be a suggestion that they (ie the person who came up with the ideas) explore this further and report back – with no acknowledgment that this will add to an already heavy work schedule.
  • Are people recognised and rewarded for their initiative? On most occasions, all people want is a genuine ‘thank you’, but all too often this is not forthcoming.