Shared responsibility is no responsibility

Smaller teams are usually better. But football teams should probably have more than three players. (Atari 2600 screenshot)

Sometimes there are articles that just nail it.  “Why Less is More in Teams” from the Harvard Business Review does exactly this.

People get tired of me saying “Shared responsibility is no responsibility.”  I say it a lot.  I advocate for personal ownership whenever possible.  I do this because wherever I’ve worked I’ve seen the results.  From the White House, to Capitol Hill, to the executive branch of state government, to the media industry:  you own something and you’ll make it successful (assuming you’ve got the right people).

Size and productivity

The author of the post, Mark du Rond, discusses the relationship between team size and productivity and comes to a similar conclusion:  smaller is better.

Blogs, for example.  If you own a blog and are responsible for the success of that blog, you’ll pay more attention.

If you are one of many, unless you’re super-motivated, are you going to check where the readers came from? Will you pay attention to the comments?  Will you jump on something that readers are telling you they’re interested in (even if it’s after hours)?  Sure, some do.  But where I’ve really seen that level of commitment is when an individual knows that the success of the blog is up to them.


When I led the Christian Science Monitor’s blogging efforts back in 2008 as we transitioned to a digital-first platform, I knew it was my responsibility to not only make the blogs work but to demonstrate how it could be done.  It my was responsibility.

So I was on the phone with our social media and SEO experts daily.  Sometimes hourly.  The Monitor wasn’t a major player in the political scene.  Sure, we had very talented journalists and the Monitor Breakfast was a staple in Washington, DC.  But in the digital space, we weren’t there.  We needed to get there.


Coming from a political background serving two U.S. senators, two governors, and one president, it was easy for me to jump in the political blogging space.  My experience let me start participating right away.  I could write many posts throughout the day and feel energized by it.  I loved it.  I knew the people.  Could easily make the phone calls.  Could easily get information that others couldn’t or would take a much greater effort for many.

When I tapped into the national conversation by way of social media, aggregators, and search, it was especially gratifying because I had tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of readers.  The metrics told me directly just how many readers I had and where they came from.

And when fellow writers linked to me, quoted from me, and initiated back and forth conversations between blogs, it made it that much more fun.

At one time, I was driving more than 25% of the site’s traffic with links coming in from the Washington Post, Politico, New York Times, Drudge, ABC News, CBS News, NPR, and my future employer: the Los Angeles Times.

The difference between any of these links and Google is that people were linking to my posts.  They made the determination that my content was worth quoting or linking out to.

Personal responsibility

It was fun.  But, again, I knew it was my responsibility.  I had to do it.  Therefore, I did it.  And the overall success of the Monitor’s traffic-driving efforts is well-documented.

The point that de Rond makes in his article is that the more people who are responsible for an output, the less they are going to feel motivated to participate.

He describes the ‘social loafing’ problem.  That is:

 “…when team members reduce their effort because they feel less responsible for the output.”

Highest performers 

de Rond goes on to give a number of possible solutions designed to fix problems of lower performing teams.  One thing he says is particularly important:

“Your best performers typically resent the company of those who don’t pull their weight, particularly if the reward system doesn’t adequately discriminate between average and top performance.”

That’s true.  I’ve seen this throughout my career.  The As are self-motivated.  They want to achieve.  They thrive on it.  But they’ll only do it for as long as they feel appreciated,  They don’t get that feedback, they’ll check out.

Follow me on Twitter @jimmyorr

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