The diffusion of responsibility

As a baby, your parents prepare your food, pick it up with a spoon, and put it in your mouth. As a toddler, they still do this. But sometimes, you can wield your own cutlery and direct it, complete with food, all the way into your own mouth.

After growing up some more, you acquire more abilities. You can walk, talk, go to school, wash yourself, and eat the food that mummy and daddy give you. 

Once you become a teenager, you start to approach self-sufficiency. You’re not exactly paying the rent and doing the shopping, but you can cook some rudimentary meals for yourself. Then finally, as an adult, you are able to gather, cook and consume your own food.

The maturation of a human being’s ability to feed himself is a nice example of the diffusion of responsibility. Namely, the better you get at a thing, the more responsibility you can assume for doing the thing. Consider it as a simple graph:

This model presents a problem though. It seems to imply that those who aren’t sufficiently competent shouldn’t be given responsibility. That seems like a fair heuristic to manage by. Except that, without the burden of responsibility, it’s very hard to reach the higher levels of competence. 

Individuals rise to the level of the expectations placed upon them. Or as I heard Tim Ferriss put it recently, people’s IQ seems to double when you give them some responsibility. Why is that? Well, responsibility implies trust, and trust implies confidence. You trust in my ability to do the job. That trust, that confidence in my ability to handle the load creates an obligation. I don’t want to let you down, so I raise my game accordingly. 

But I might not get it right the first time. I might screw up the second time, and the third, and the fourth. That’s the risk of trust and responsibility diffusing down the chain. 

If someone is to excel, they need responsibility. But when you give them the space to succeed, you also give them the space to fail.